Scores of lumber workers have received two-week, paid vacations from the federal government because of a quirk in the law providing aid to loggers put out of work by the Redwood National Park taking shape near here.
Because of what federal Labor Department officials term as ironclad language in the park expansion act passed last year by Congress, at least 148 loggers already have collected benefits averaging more than $300 a week -- although they had been furloughed by their companies in the same kind of maintenance layoffs they had taken without pay for the past 39 years.
It is the latest in a series of controversies surrounding the Redwood National Park, which, in relief, timber and land rights, is expected to cost as much as $1 billion. According to the National Park Service, the acquisition price of all national parks in history up to now only $850 million. The redwood park's cost was originally pegged at $358 million.
At least 100 more workers are still waiting for their Christmas checks, according to Betty Reardon, the manager of the Eureka branch of the California Employment Development Department, but they have been unable get them because now that they are back at work, they can't find the time to do the paperwork.
Therefore, Reardon said, the EDD office is setting up a weekend and after-hours staff to take care of paying the jobless benefits.
Federal Labor Department officials fear hundreds more loggers are eligible for the program.
The story began shortly before Christmas, when Arcata National Co., one of the three major timber firms affected by the expansion, laid off several hundred workers for normal maintenance and overhaul of equipment.
Arcata National has been doing that every year since 1939, according to the firm's personnel manager, Cub Tashner.
But this year, the loggers took advantage of section 203 of the park expansion act, stating:
"The total or partial layoff of a covered employe employed by an affected employer during the period beginning May 31, 1977, and ending Sept. 30, 1980... is conclusively presumed to be attributed to the expansion of Redwood National Park."
That was less than attractive to the company.
"The real problem is the people who work during the closures," Tashner said. "It's like someone came up to you and said take a couple of weeks off and relax.
"You're talking about $1,200 or $1,300 in take-home pay for those two weeks" for some higher-paid employes, he said.
When Labor Department officials discovered the workers flooding the Eureka State Employment Office, which pays out the benefit for the federal government, they immediately asked the U.S. solicitor general for a ruling on whether the benefits should be paid.
"Our opinion was it had nothing to do with the park expansion, that it was internal to the business," said Ronald Glass, supervising industrial relations specialist for the Department of Labor in Washington.
"The solicitor's office came back with the advisory opinion that there was no ambiguity -- that anyone laid off in those time frames is covered -- and the maintenance layoffs at Arcata were rolled in under those sections."
Said one Labor Department source: "There is no way in hell that our lawyers can get around that language. These guys went down there in droves. The company was screaming. They didn't have anybody to go to work because these people were getting paid off for not going to work."
Arcata National has hundreds more employes who could take part in the program, Tasner said. There is another maintenance layoff coming in late summer.
Another major firm, Simpson Timber Co., which employs about 1,400 workers in its California region, has similar problems.
"Some did go down and apply for Redwood Employe Protection Program benefits," said Paul Evans, a spokesman for Simpson. "I don't know how many or who they are. When they began inquiring we just referred them to the U.S. Department of Labor."
It is not known how much such maintenance layoffs will ultimately cost the taxpayers. Some officials believe there are 1,500 to 2,000 more persons who are potentially eligible who have not applied yet.
Under the terms of the act, a laidoff worker may receive the equivalent of his full pay before the park expansion put him out of business. Some loggers receive the equivalent of as much as $50,000 annually for several years. And if their union negotiates new contracts for those still working, the laid-off loggers receive the benefit of the raises.
The maintenance layoffs have added to the worries of the Labor Department officials. That is because loggers affected by the park expansion must register for benefits prior to Sept. 30, 1980. If they aren't affected by then, they won't be.
But even a two-week layoff and subsequent registration extends their eligibility for another four years. Thus, if they're laid off for any reason priior to Sept. 30, 1980, they are eligible until 1984. And if they turn 60 before Sept. 30, 1984 and are laid off permanently, they can collect until they are 65 years of age. That gives some of those furloughed for two weeks now the potential to collect benefits until 1989.