At all levels of government, a good amount of time is spent on process issues, or the wording of forms, or highly abstract discussions of poverty or unemployment that bear little relation to the poor or unemployed.
Michael Krisman, Deputy Director at the Employment Development Department (EDD) in the early 2000s, recognized this and it often made him angry. When a discussion might veer to the theoretical or the arcane, Michael would interrupt to ask, “What does this mean for the job seeker in Glendale?” If staff at EDD or other departments held forth about how something couldn’t be done, he would say, “Tell us how it can be done”. He always tried to focus on the individual job seeker in Glendale or Shasta or Madera.
Michael served as Deputy Director through much of the period 1999-2004, which is how I came to know him. By the late 1990s, he had been in state government for over twenty-five years, financially didn’t need to work, could speak his mind—and he did.
I believe Michael most enjoyed the times when we left Sacramento and visited EDD offices throughout the state. In the 1950s and the 1960s EDD offices were built in communities, large and small, throughout the state. You’d go to any downtown area, in Bakersfield or Redding or San Jose, and find an EDD office—often known as the “unemployment office”, as unemployment benefits then were paid in person. In the early 2000s, this system of offices continued to operate, if in reduced form.
We might take a day and visit the EDD offices in the Central Valley: going from EDD offices in Fresno, Merced, Madera, and Modesto. Or we might travel to the EDD offices in San Diego and Imperial County. We would visit the offices for tax collection, disability insurance, and unemployment insurance, as well as job placement services.
Michael valued the efforts of the line workers at EDD more than any group. He would ask questions: “How could tax collection processes be improved”, or “How can the Unemployment Insurance system get workers back to work more quickly?” He would type up the notes and send them to the Division chiefs in Sacramento, and make sure that the local offices received replies.
Michael was a registered Democrat, but mainly he was a populist. His populism led him, in fact, to be highly critical of the Democratic legislators and leadership in Sacramento. He regarded the Democrats not as reducing the role of elites, but as trying to create their own Democratic elites linked to state economic regulations or the on-going pursuit and holding of political power. He identified with the middle class of Southern California that he knew when he came to California in the 1960s, and saw the Democratic Party as having abandoned this group.
Michael started his political life as a person of the left, a member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), active in anti-war demonstrations at UC Irvine in the mid-1960s. Michael was elected student body president at UC Irvine in 1967-1968. After his graduation in 1969, he worked briefly at UC Irvine. He kept in his office a framed newspaper headline from September 1969, “Regents Won’t Fire Krisman”, relating to the attempts by conservative groups to get him fired from UC Irvine for his radicalism.
He went to law school at UC Davis, receiving his degree in 1973, and started as a field representative for State Senator Anthony Beilenson in Los Angeles. In 1975, following the enactment of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, Governor Jerry Brown appointed Michael to a task force on its implementation. Michael subsequently came to Sacramento to work for the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, becoming the chief of operations in its first tumultuous years.
He moved to the Department of Consumer Affairs, serving as Deputy and Chief Deputy in the period of the late 1970s through 1982. Following the election of a new Governor in 1982, he transferred to the state legislature and became principal consultant to the California Assembly Committee on Housing and Community Development, where he worked with then Assemblyman Gray Davis.
After nearly 10 years in the legislature, he transferred again, this time to the California Emergency Medical Services Authority and then to EDD. At EDD, he found a home in the job placement/services to the unemployed he believed in. He stayed through the early 2000s.
We both left EDD in 2004, after the Recall, but kept in contact with each other, as well as with Loraine Cory of the EDD Director’s office, who had started her career with EDD in Fresno. When the Unemployment Insurance Fund went into the red during the Great Recession, we worked together on Fund solvency strategies—strategies that went to the very structure of this outdated program of the 1930s. Our ideas never gained traction, but it was typical of Michael that he invested time on this project, without any thought of remuneration or position. He was angry that the Fund should be threatened, threatening payments to the unemployed or significantly higher costs to employers.
My last communication with Michael was in late March. I was developing an employment project for workers with disabilities; a subject that I knew was of importance of him. He generously offered his time, and we agreed to meet when he returned from trips with Chris and Rita in early May. Then last Thursday, May 8, an e-mailed appeared that Michael had passed away from a cancer that many of us thought was in remission.
“Sad sad day, indeed”, Loraine Cory e-mailed last Thursday after she heard the news. Other EDD colleagues of Michael quickly weighed in: Jose Luis Marquez, Linda Rogaski, Ester Martignetti, and Linda Shakespeare. Michael was a valued long time colleague of former EDD Director Pat Henning, and his son, the current EDD Director, Patrick Henning Jr.
Today, fewer job seekers than in the past go into EDD offices (now incorporated into the One-Stop system). The public job placement system is migrating to the Internet, with services provided online. But Michael’s question should continue to guide all of us and state employment efforts in the future: “What does this mean for the job seeker in Glendale?”