From the Editor

Drescher: Dale Folwell, Mr. Fix-it, now working to improve the state unemployment system

jdrescher@newsobserver.comOctober 26, 2013 

“The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.”

Robert M. Pirsig

In “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

Dale Folwell likes to take things apart. After high school, he worked as a motorcycle mechanic before going to UNC Greensboro and becoming a forensic accountant, reconstructing what went wrong with bankrupt companies.

At 54, Folwell races motorcycles in the Grand National Cross Country Series and still works on bikes. “It’s genetic,” Folwell, a former state legislator, said of why he likes to fix things. “It’s the only thing I could do to provide for myself and my family.”

Folwell tinkers with brakes and carburetors, but he also deconstructs systems. His latest endeavor, as Gov. Pat McCrory’s head of the state Division of Employment Security, is to improve the management of the state’s unemployment system.

Talent for bipartisanship

Folwell was born in Raleigh but grew up in Winston-Salem, which he represented for four terms in the N.C. House of Representatives. (Folwell’s state office is in the old Rex Hospital building on Wade Avenue, just up the stairs from where he was born.) He ran for lieutenant governor in 2012 (he finished a close third in the GOP primary) in what he called his “Dale Can Fix NC Tour.”

In the legislature, Folwell, a Republican, had a talent for working with both parties. He won unanimous House support for a proposal to require that vehicle property taxes be paid when auto registration is renewed. He also won strong bipartisan support for a bill that overhauled the state’s workers’ compensation system.

Now he leads an agency that has performed poorly in measures tracked by the U.S. Labor Department. North Carolina also owes the federal government $2 billion that the state borrowed to pay unemployment benefits. Only New York and California owe more. As long as North Carolina has the debt, employers are assessed a penalty, which next year will be $63 per employee.

The legislature this year raised taxes for employers and cut benefits to the unemployed so that it could pay the debt faster. Critics say legislators cut benefits too severely.

Busy signals

Folwell wants his staff to respond promptly to claims filed by the unemployed and to make good decisions about whether the person should receive benefits. Only people who lose a job through no fault of their own are eligible.

Folwell started his job in March. He walked around the old Rex Hospital this spring with his cellphone, dialing his customer service number (888-737-0259). For 20 days, he got a busy signal. Overall, about 20 percent of calls were going through. He installed an automated menu of phone options to get callers to the right place. That freed up the call center lines. By the end of September, 91 percent of calls were answered.

Folwell immerses himself in the process. He reads appealed cases. He talks with employees. Brilliant solutions that make a big difference in a single stroke don’t happen often, he said. But staffers have ideas for small fixes that can add up to more. “The people who work here are fixing this,” he told me this week.

Folwell is a determined fellow. He has a couple of broken ribs from a recent motorcycle race. “If you ride fast enough to win, you’re going to fall once in a while,” he said. “It’s the same around here.” Folwell estimates the state will pay off its debt to the federal government in November 2015. The motorcycle mechanic wants to get it done on his watch.

 

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com; Twitter: @john_drescher

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