Whistleblower: Wrong click costs him plenty

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 7, 2012 - 10:09 AM

A simple mistake when applying for unemployment benefits online has complicated the lives of a Minnesota man and his daughter.

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Paul Thielen adjusted his 13-year-old daughter’s hat while waiting for her cardiology appointment outside Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis on Friday. His daughter is developmentally disabled and requires frequent medical attention.

Photo: Marisa Wojcik, Star Tribune

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In November, Paul Thielen applied for unemployment benefits after he stopped working at a St. Cloud printing plant. He thought he was getting laid off. His company told the state the same thing, records show. But an unemployment law judge denied Thielen's request, saying he was on a leave of absence and isn't eligible for benefits.

That's left Thielen, 51, of Paynesville, without an estimated $1,500 for five weeks out of a job. Now he's fighting the decision as he tries to make ends meet supporting his 13-year-old daughter, who is developmentally disabled and requires frequent medical appointments.

Thielen acknowledges that he made a mistake when first applying for benefits -- by clicking the button that said "leave of absence" instead of "layoff." But he doesn't understand why his appeal, supported by his company, has gotten nowhere.

"It's very frustrating," he said. "You have to wonder how many other Minnesotans are having this problem."

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development declined to comment on the pending case. But in the Jan. 27 decision on Thielen's appeal, unemployment law judge Christopher Cimafranca said that a "preponderance of the evidence shows Thielen was on a voluntary leave of absence," and is therefore not eligible for unemployment benefits.

David Allen Larson, a law professor at Hamline University who specializes in employment law, said it's unusual for the state to deny benefits when the employee and employer both support a request. "Ordinarily, an employer wouldn't join a claim," Larson said.

"It just comes down to a different determination of what really happened here," he said. "Was this really a layoff? The judge was saying 'I don't buy it.' There must have been something that caused them to believe this is not a straight layoff."

A 30-year printing worker, Thielen had worked at Nahan Printing as a roll tender for a year and a half when he was told in November the company needed to reduce its workforce. He was told he could work part-time and get unemployment for the hours he was no longer able to work, or he could accept a straight layoff. He said he chose the latter, because of the challenge of arranging child care on that part-time schedule.

The problem started when Thielen filed for unemployment insurance benefits online. Days later, he was told an issue was pending. That's when he said he realized he had reported the loss of job was due to a "leave of absence" not "layoff."

"It's a simple fact I made a mistake," he said. "I clicked the wrong button."

Nahan Printing declined to comment on Thielen's case, citing employee privacy, but in a report in December the company confirmed that Thielen was laid off due to lack of work. Thielen said that seven of his co-workers who also chose the layoff over part-time work are receiving benefits.

Yet in his ruling, Cimafranca wrote that Thielen could have chosen to work part-time, so therefore he wasn't laid off. Even those on a leave of absence can be eligible for benefits, but not in Thielen's case because Nahan Printing doesn't have a written policy about it, the judge wrote.

Thielen has now filed a request for reconsideration and is waiting for a response from another unemployment law judge later this month.

If he's denied again, his next option is to file an appeal with the Minnesota Court of Appeals. As he awaits a decision, Thielen has returned to work twice for short stints.

"That's the purpose of it -- a bridge to help people between jobs," he said about the unemployment benefit. "I've got my back up against a wall. Does it really need to be this complicated?"

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 Twitter: @kellystrib

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