Jobless Offices After Tragedy: New Efforts to Defuse Stresses

Times Staff Writers

Nearly a year has passed since Fidel Gonzalez Jr. walked into his boss's office in the troubled Garden Grove unemployment office and fired four shots--three into the chest of Louis H. Zuniga Jr. and one into his own temple.

A dozen people watched the men die in a double tragedy that has since become an emblem of an agency in distress. For although Gonzalez and Zuniga died last March 31, they did not take the Employment Development Department's troubles with them.

Union officials, family members and the men's co-workers blamed their deaths on stressful working conditions and an indifferent state bureaucracy. Since then, one more employee of the state Employment Development Department has died of what his Long Beach co-workers and union officials say was a "stress-related" illness. And in two other EDD offices, two other workers were severely beaten by outraged clients.

Techniques for Working With Clients

Employment Development Department administrators describe the deaths, attacks and employee complaints as "unrelated" and not a product of work stress, but they have taken steps to address some of the complaints.

In recent months, the embattled agency has instructed employees on techniques for working with angry clients, identified more than 50 of its 134 field offices statewide as high security risks and begun installing safety devices and barricades to guard workers from assaults.

"When you consider how long we've been in operations . . . we've really had a remarkably low number of serious incidents despite the fact that we deal with hundreds of thousands of people each year," said Valerie J. Reynoso, EDD spokeswoman in Sacramento. "But I have to say our concern heightened dramatically as a result of these unrelated incidents."

'Going to Take Some Time'

Workers and officials of the California State Employees Assn. acknowledge that life in the Garden Grove office has improved considerably in the last year. But many workers remain haunted by the murder-suicide.

"Talking about it still brings stress to me," said Cecily Law, who works in the employment services division of the office, finding jobs for the unemployed. "I think it's going to be a long time . . . before we are going to be able to relax about it. It's, it's just going to take some time."

A union-sponsored study is under way to measure the effects of stress on the lives of employees in EDD's field offices. And a legislative hearing is scheduled for April 4 in Long Beach to investigate complaints of continuing stress and alleged misconduct by management. The hearing will be sponsored by state Sen. Bill Green (D-Los Angeles) in his capacity as chairman of the Senate fiscal review subcommittee, which reviews the EDD budget.

"If one of my employees is coming in and blowing away one of my managers and then himself, I'd have to say, 'Why did that happen, have they moved their (office) automation too fast . . . ?' " said Patrick Lentz, staff director of the fiscal review subcommittee. "That's the question, and I think that's what they're going to try to figure out when they go to Long Beach."

On the morning of March 31, 1986, Fidel Gonzalez, 53, drove to work early and walked into the office of Louis Zuniga. The two men exchanged words, and Gonzalez pulled out a Brazilian-made, .38-caliber revolver and shot his 50-year-old boss three times. Without a moment's hesitation, Gonzalez put the gun to his own temple and fired once. Both men died instantly.

A note found in Gonzalez's breast pocket--"I hope this will alleviate a lot of stress from my co-workers and set them free"--provided the first clue that all was not right in the office.

Paramedics Called

Tales began to emerge about Zuniga. Garden Grove workers described Zuniga--who was known outside the office as a tireless community activist and loving father--as a tyrant. They called the dilapidated office he ran "the Concentration Camp." Paramedics had been called to treat workers who had collapsed on the job--one week they were called three times.

Workers and union officials said stressful conditions existed elsewhere in the vast EDD system, and in the year since the Garden Grove killing, there have been a number of other incidents:

- In San Bernardino, about two months after the Garden Grove murder-suicide, the EDD office manager interceded in a fight between an enraged client and an office worker, an agency spokeswoman said. The manager, Dick Schendel, was hit over the head, received four stitches and was off work for a week following the June 2, 1986, attack.

- Four days later, in San Francisco, a man apparently upset because he was denied unemployment benefits returned to the EDD office with a loaded semiautomatic rifle and a hatchet. He pointed the rifle at an EDD worker and pulled the trigger several times, but the weapon misfired. Her supervisor charged the man and pulled the gun away, but not before getting smashed in the head several times with the hatchet.

- And on Jan. 27, 1987, Edward Choice, 37, died at St. Mary's Medical Center in Long Beach. An employment program technician at the Long Beach EDD office, Choice had been rushed to the hospital the day before after being dressed down for 90 minutes by supervisors, witnesses said. Choice suffered a stroke during or shortly after the Jan. 26 confrontation with his supervisors and died of a heart attack the next day.

"They harassed him to death," said Marcelle Talbert, Choice's sister. "I don't think he was able to take it. The last thing he said to me was that I should bring it to the attention of whoever I could."

Family Files Claim

Choice's family has hired attorney Fred M. Blum to file a claim against the state and to investigate whether to sue. The claim "will be for harassment and failure to reasonably accommodate Mr. Choice's physical handicap (an earlier stroke)," Blum said. "The evidence that we have uncovered is that they (supervisors) mercilessly harassed him."

EDD officials launched their own investigation of Choice's death and on March 9 released a statement that denied any management or agency involvement in the death.

"EDD's investigation has found: no evidence of harassment of Mr. Choice . . . no evidence of management deficiencies or stressful working conditions at the Long Beach office," the statement read.

The CSEA, a union of 20,000 state workers, about half of whom are EDD employees, held open hearings March 21 and 28 in Los Angeles and Sacramento to investigate the problems facing EDD employees statewide. EDD workers gave graphic testimony about the three deaths and supplied a laundry list of grating daily problems--from hostile clients and overbearing supervisors to workloads that grew as office staffs shrank.

"We have, from different angles, seen a pervasive direction of stress at our workplaces," said a Pomona EDD employee. "It's concerning the health of the individuals . . . work environment in terms of furniture, computers, ventilation, the heat, the air conditioning, the type of contact with the public, the atmosphere of competition among employees just to succeed."

Afraid to Open Up

Said one Long Beach EDD worker: "The people are afraid to open up and say anything because they don't want to become the next victim of harassment. They are intimidated. Some people are so intimidated that they are afraid to exercise their rights as an employee."

The CSEA hearings weren't scheduled until after Choice's death. But the EDD itself began examining reports of internal problems last fall.

Prompted by what spokeswoman Reynoso called "this unrelated rash" of violent attacks on employees, EDD Director Kaye R. Kiddoo last winter organized a special task force to review existing safety measures in the department's 134 field offices.

The results of the investigation were released earlier this month in a 43-page report titled, "Safety in the Workplace."

Key findings, according to the report, were that "office safety depends primarily on the procedures used in dealing with the public, the office's relationship with the community and the skills and attitudes of the employees. Specific physical security features are important but secondary." A second finding was that the controversial automation of the department--which some workers had identified as a cause of stress--should "provide more efficient and effective service to the public" and "will permit reduction in the number of in-person contacts."

Phone Interviews

In the Garden Grove branch, as well as other field offices, determinations workers--those employees who interview applicants for unemployment benefits and deliver the good or bad news--now conduct their questioning over the phone. As recommended by the task force, judgments on benefits are delivered by mail.

Since the Garden Grove murder-suicide, 52 EDD offices throughout California have been identified as high-risk branches in need of security improvements.

The EDD has allocated $1 million for security measures, most of which have not yet been installed.

The task force--a group of 12 state employees from EDD and other departments--recommended equipping high-risk offices with alarm systems much like those in banks: employees can buzz counter buttons if they feel in danger or if they are threatened.

"Installation of alarm systems, view panels, panic bars (like those at theater exits that allow them to be opened only from the inside) and special combination locks has commenced in field offices throughout the state," Kiddoo wrote in a March 10 memo to all EDD employees.

"We have secured approval and funding to install attractive, businesslike . . . counters in 52 EDD field offices," Kiddoo added.

Deterrent Measures

Other reform measures include the designation of two investigators to deal with instances of verbal abuse, threats and actual attacks on workers. Their work will include a "variety of deterrent measures ranging from telephone contacts with the abusive individual to the filing of criminal complaints."

Since the task force was formed last August, Kiddoo wrote, the investigators have had success in "preventing violent situations in EDD offices."

As of Friday, an agency spokeswoman said, a new computerized system to track reports of violence and threats on workers had recorded three actual attacks. These can include pushing or shoving.

Prosecuting unruly or combative clients has previously been difficult unless police officers actually witnessed the attack, administrators have said.

But a proposed bill by Assemblyman Paul E. Zeltner (R-Lakewood), a former Los Angeles Sheriff's Department captain, would allow peace officers, based "on reasonable cause," to make arrests on assault and battery violations occurring on state property during office hours. EDD spokeswoman Suzanne Schroeder said the law, if passed, would increase prison time from six months to a year for those convicted of assault and battery on on-duty state employees.

Training Course

Finally, more than half of the 3,000 EDD workers considered to have regular contact with the public have gone through four-hour training courses led by UC Davis instructors. Begun Sept. 26 in San Francisco and Long Beach, the course is called "Working With the Angry or Hostile Client."

It was at one such course, a Garden Grove worker recalled, that an unknowing instructor remarked: "Stress can get so bad that, if you don't take care of it, workers shoot their bosses."

Other in-house stress management courses are planned as well.

Although the drab Garden Grove building is still rife with cockroaches and proper furniture to accommodate the computers has yet to be supplied, a nearby site has been chosen for a new office and officials say ground should be broken soon. Louis Zuniga has been replaced as manager by Richard Johnson, whom workers describe as a gentle, "fatherly" man.

"It's so much more relaxed now, what with the new manager we have," said Gordon Powers, who witnessed the shooting last year. "He was our manager before Mr. Zuniga came here. Everybody likes him, and everybody works hard for him. I don't feel there's any stress here whatsoever for anyone."

Anniversary of Killing

Still, disturbing memories of the murder-suicide have caused several Garden Grove EDD employees to ask for a day off on the anniversary of the killings.

"I think a lot of us are kind of apprehensive about . . . Tuesday, which is the first anniversary," Law said. "I think a lot of us wish they were willing to close the office. . . . I don't want to be here in this office that day."

Barbara Crofts, a Garden Grove employee who was hospitalized with what her doctor called a "stress-related" heart attack shortly after the March 31 incident, said "my attitude has changed a lot.

"If something like that doesn't change your outlook, nothing will. I just will never work again like that until I drop. It's unfortunate that we have to have such a dramatic thing happen to us to realize that."

Last January, the families of Zuniga and Gonzalez filed wrongful death lawsuits against the state, charging that government officials could have prevented the two men's deaths. Nancy Zuniga and her family asked for an unspecified amount of compensatory damages in their suit, filed Jan. 14. Paulita R. Gonzalez and her son asked for $7 million in their suit, filed Jan. 28.

Arguments Nearly Identical

The foundation and arguments in support of both of the families' Orange County Superior Court lawsuits are "nearly identical, up to the morning of the shooting," said Maurice Mandel II, attorney for the Gonzalez family.

"Zuniga was victimized by Gonzalez; Fidel Gonzalez was victimized by himself," Mandel said. "But before the shooting, they were both victimized by the state. They were actually placed in that situation that morning because of the acts of the state officials (ranking) above Lou Zuniga."

Paulita Gonzalez could not be reached for comment and Nancy Zuniga's attorney, Jonathan Milberg, refused to allow her to be interviewed. But Mandel and Milberg said that both families are still grappling with the grief caused by the loss of their loved ones.

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