Court Allows Unemployment Despite Papers Protests

By Ed Frauenheim

Mar. 17, 2009

Among the organizations challenging a former worker on unemployment benefits in recent years is Freedom Communications, publisher of The Orange County Register.

The Irvine, California-based media firm protested the benefits of Debbie Zucco, a former editor at the Register who took a voluntary severance package worth $53,500 in late 2006.

Under California law, people leaving employers on a voluntary basis still can qualify for benefits under certain circumstances. Zucco, who worked at the newspaper for nearly 19 years, argued that constantly changing directives at the paper were causing stress-related health problems.

She also figured her job was likely to be cut eventually, because an executive warned on a conference call that “old media” positions were in jeopardy. Zucco worked as a wire editor, selecting and editing stories from wire services, and says the paper has since abolished the job title of wire editor.

California’s Employment Development Department initially denied Zucco’s benefits application. She appealed the initial decision, and an administrative law judge sided with her. The newspaper company then appealed to the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board. It also sided with Zucco.

The Register’s owner then took the matter to California Superior Court, arguing that Zucco’s case set a dangerous precedent of employees “double dipping” by collecting both a severance package and unemployment benefits. The court found in Zucco’s favor. She says the court eventually awarded her roughly $16,000 in attorney fees.

Zucco, 56, collected $8,700 in unemployment benefits after being jobless for much of 2007. Now an editor at The (Riverside) Press-Enterprise, she remains bewildered by the Register’s determination to deny her benefits. And she remains angry. “How could you do that to someone that worked for you for 18 years?” she says.

The Register did not return calls seeking comment.

Ed Frauenheim is a former Associate Editorial Director at Human Capital Media and currently works as Senior Director of Content at Great Place to Work. He is a co-author of A Great Place to Work For All.

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