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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?"
Gravity appears to be the theme in the updated "Best of the Worst" photo gallery from the Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MNOSHA). Inspectors take these pictures to document workplace safety violations, and they're typically shared internally at the agency. But MNOSHA now puts a number of them online, minus any information that identifies the employer. They provide an alarming record of the risks that workers, particularly those in construction, sometimes take.
"Falls are one of the top ways people get hurt or killed on the job," says MNOSHA spokesman James Honerman. They're also among the easiest violations to spot from afar. Yet the inspectors didn't just drive away after getting their snapshots.
"These are all closed cases," Honerman said. "The hazard that you see was addressed immediately or has been addressed."
Go the MNOSHA's photo gallery to see all of the snapshots.
Call it truth in advertising: An Indianapolis company is recalling all flavors of its Toxic Waste brand Nuclear Sludge Chew Bars because, by golly, they're toxic.
Tests in California show elevated levels of lead, a dangerous neurotoxin, in the candy bars, which are imported by Candy Dynamics from Pakistan. The labels show a 55-gallon drum overflowing with green goo, and a grimacing character in the shape of a mushroom cloud. While there's no lead listed on the label, the other ingredients aren't exactly health foods: the first three are sugar, corn syrup and hydrogenated palm kernel oil.
Announcing the voluntary recall of cherry, sour apple and blue raspberry flavors last week, the Food and Drug Administration notes that other Toxic Waste-branded products are still, apparently, fit for consumption.
Chimney sweep rip-offs
Among the "cold-weather cons" publicized by AARP this month is a warning about chimney sweeps, who may advertise a cheap cleaning and then discover all sorts of costly troubles once they look at your chimney.
If you're told you have to act immediately, be suspicious. If the chimney sweep says there's a carbon monoxide leak, ask for proof from a CO detector. If the sweep says the chimney's crumbling, look for chunks of masonry in the fireplace or outside the house.
AARP advises that a cleaning should cost $150 to $200 and that local fire department and the Chimney Safety Institute of America (317-837-5362) can offer referrals for chimney sweeps.
Discrimination complaints soar
Incidents of workplace discrimination reported to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) hit a record 99,922 in the most recent fiscal year, as claims of retaliation surpassed racial discrimination for the first time.
The EEOC reported last week that its 250 lawsuits and other actions on behalf of victims of discrimination compelled private sector employers to hand over $404 million "to promote inclusive and discrimination-free workplaces."
The agency defines retaliation as an employer's punitive action against a worker who complains about discrimination. Complaints of racial discrimination had previously been the most common category since the EEOC was launched in 1965.
A Richfield man nearing retirement thought he was eligible for a pension from a company he worked for in the 1990s. The company went out of business, and the former employee didn’t get a response from the union to which he had belonged.
He turned to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a federal agency that will pay some pension benefits if a plan ends. He was initially told that the agency didn’t have a record of the company. When he inquired again, he was told the pension did exist, but he wasn’t listed as a beneficiary. Now he’s waiting to find out whether the agency will accept his claim.
To find out if the agency took over your old pension, call 1-800-400-7242 or visit the agency's online lookup tool.
Have you had trouble tracking down a pension you earned years ago?
Over the past year, hundreds of you have asked Whistleblower for help. While we can’t investigate each tip, we want to share more of what you tell us. In 2009, we started publishing a few tips each week to stimulate online discussion and create ways for our readers to help each other. Unlike our news stories, we have not verified this information, so we do not include the names of the parties involved. If you have a tip, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
During two visits to a large national retailer, a customer said he was bombarded by offers to open a credit card. He wanted to know why all of the sales associates he spoke with were so pushy, so he asked whether they received an incentive if they persuaded customers to sign up for a card.
“They told us that if they did not reach a certain goal or number of new credit customers, they would be docked hours,” he wrote to Whistleblower. “Their future employment would be in jeopardy if they did not succeed in pushing customers into taking on more debt. As we spoke with a number of individuals, one said 'no comment’ in fear of losing her job if she spoke honestly with us.”
Are retailers going too far in pitching their credit cards?
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