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Mass. labor chief ‘obviously tried to neutralize me,’ official says

Pittsfield official who spoke out about issues with the state’s jobless benefits system says he was targeted

Labor Secretary Joanne Goldstein (right) has defended the new online system.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Labor Secretary Joanne Goldstein (right) has defended the new online system.

John Barrett III, who ran the career center in Pittsfield for nearly three years, said he warned state officials that the new online system for managing unemployment benefits was not ready to be rolled out on its July 1 launch date, anticipating problems that would overwhelm phone lines and career centers.

Several weeks later, when his warnings proved prescient, he spoke publicly about the difficulties the new system had caused jobless workers trying to get benefits. Labor department officials chastised him for his comments to the local newspaper, he said, while an “infuriated” Secretary Joanne Goldstein contacted the head of the board that oversees the center and the mayor of Pittsfield to complain about him.

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“She obviously tried to neutralize me,” said Barrett, who served as mayor of North Adams for 26 years until 2010. “But I saw something was wrong and I saw the faces of these people who couldn’t get benefits, and that’s why I did it.”

Barrett’s experiences are indicative of what career center staff and legislators said were state labor department officials who at times seemed more interested in managing public perceptions than addressing problems that were keeping hundreds, if not thousands, of unemployed workers from collecting benefits. Career centers, many run by nonprofits contracting with the state, are on the front lines for the unemployed, providing a variety of services, including help with claims.

Many centers were overwhelmed by jobless people facing claims issues after using the new claims system. State officials grossly underplayed the scale of the problems, career center officials said, discouraging them from referring to “glitches” in the system or speaking to the media about the problems. Labor department officials visiting the Pittsfield career center even demanded that photocopied information with legislators’ phone numbers be taken off walls and desks in an effort to keep the problems quiet, Barrett said.

State labor officials focused more on public perceptions than addressing system woes, many lawmakers say.

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Yet the volume of claimants who contacted legislators helped prompt the Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee to open an investigation into the system last fall. Among other issues, claimants said they often waited for hours when they contacted the state help line only to be disconnected.

In Holyoke, so many angry claimants flooded the career center that executive director David Gadaire hired a security firm. Gadaire said he and other career center directors told Goldstein or her staff on many occasions that the system was flawed, and career center workers were frustrated because they were often powerless to fix the problems.

After Gadaire was quoted in an Aug. 19 Globe story saying the transition to the new system was “very very difficult,” a top labor department official contacted him and told him he “needed to take a more positive approach,” “back up what the state’s trying to do” and that he “shouldn’t be going to the press.”

“I think they were trying to get control of a story that was growing,” Gadaire said in a recent interview.

Goldstein, who will leave the labor department Friday to become associate vice president of workforce development at Northeastern University, declined to be interviewed. Robert Oftring, an interim spokesman for the department, said in a statement that the state offered career centers extra staffing and support to handle claims issues.

“Career center directors were encouraged to voice their concerns and offer suggestions about how to best structure the launch,” Oftring wrote. Career center directors, he said, were “encouraged to coordinate their public statements” with the Department of Career Services.

Barrett was not reappointed as executive director of the Pittsfield career center, known as BerkshireWorks, when his contract ended Jan. 17.

Barrett said he and other career center employees were invited to test drive the system just a few months before the rollout.

Barrett said he was concerned that the new system would confuse users and ultimately overwhelm both the phone lines for filing claims and providing assistance.

After the rollout, the number of people visiting the Pittsfield career center more than doubled to about 400 people a week because of claims issues, he said. People who had waited for help on phone lines for hours were coming in angry and frustrated, worried about how they would pay their mortgages and other bills.

Barrett said one man received about 70 letters about his unemployment claim in a single week. In another instance, an 85-year-old woman received a letter from the state demanding reimbursement for a $63 overpayment by the state from 22 years ago.

In August, Barrett said he visited Pittsfield Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi to discuss the end of his contract. Bianchi told him that he had been contacted by state labor department officials and if “some things didn’t change . . . there was a possibility that BerkshireWorks would close or funding would be taken away,” Barrett said.

Oftring denied that Goldstein threatened to withdraw career center funding for BerkshireWorks in Pittsfield or any other career center.

Bianchi, who under the law appoints the career center director, said in an interview last week that he couldn’t recall whether Goldstein had contacted him. He said he never discussed Barrett with her, although he said they discussed the resumes of the candidates for Barrett’s job and Goldstein offered suggestions.

“I wanted to make sure we were getting the right person or looking at the right candidate,” he said.

On Sept. 15, Barrett was quoted in the Berkshire Eagle newspaper saying the new system had caused so many problems that “some people have gone eight or nine weeks without a check, some even longer.”

Barrett received a text message the next day from Heather P. Boulger, executive director of the Berkshire County Regional Employment Board, which oversees the career center. The text said Goldstein was “infuriated” by Barrett’s comments.

Boulger said in an interview that she sent the text because Goldstein was concerned about avoiding miscommunication and had asked career center staff to forward unemployment insurance questions directly to the department.

State Representative William “Smitty” Pignatelli, a Democrat representing the Lenox area, said he and the Berkshire delegation have written Goldstein and Governor Deval Patrick because of the problems. And he said his office continues to field a steady stream of complaints from claimants.

“It’s flawed,” he said of the system. “And it’s time for someone in state government to recognize it and fix it.”

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megan.woolhouse@globe.com.

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