SACRAMENTO — A member of Gov. Jerry Brown's inner circle and a veteran labor union lobbyist has been recruited to run California's troubled Employment Development Department.
Patrick William Henning has been serving as the governor's chief deputy appointments secretary since 2011. Now he faces a bigger challenge: turning around a massive 8,800-person bureaucracy that runs the state's unemployment and disability insurance programs and labor statistics services.
The vast department also collects a variety of payroll taxes, making it one of the largest tax collection agencies in the nation.
The announcement that Henning, 41, of West Sacramento, had been hired as director of the EDD got an upbeat greeting from some of the department's frequent critics.
"I'm very optimistic that he's going to be doing good things over at the EDD. I think we're on the right path," said Assemblyman Henry T. Perea (D-Fresno), who last week won approval from a legislative committee to conduct a formal audit at the department.
The EDD has been swamped with millions of claims for unemployment benefits since the onset of the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009.
It's been somewhat leaderless for the last nine months under an interim director and has struggled to cope with computer snafus that delayed payments to more than 150,000 eligible jobless in the fall.
The EDD's phone system nearly collapsed under the weight of millions of calls from frustrated claimants, who at one point failed to connect with caseworkers in nine out of every 10 attempts.
Henning's hiring is part of an almost two-month effort by the Brown administration to fix the EDD.
Early last month, the governor appointed David Lanier as secretary of the Labor and Workforce Development Agency. Lanier lost little time directing the department to hire, rehire and retain hundreds of workers to speed up processing of unemployment claims. He also ordered work to begin on an upgraded phone system that automatically returns calls when all caseworkers are busy.
"Patrick [Henning] is a problem solver with deep legislative and government experience," said Evan Westrup, a Brown spokesman. "He has been a huge asset to our office and we're confident EDD and the people of California will be well served."
Westrup declined to make Henning available for an interview.
Henning's appointment won plaudits from advocates for the unemployed and working poor.
"This is another indicator that the governor and the labor secretary are serious about reforming EDD," said Maurice Emsellem, co-policy director for the National Employment Law Project in Oakland. He said it's especially encouraging that the governor is tapping a person with "a strong connection to the governor's office."
Art Pulaski, the executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation, praised "Henning's long track record of supporting workers," calling it "a testament to the kind of leadership he will bring to the EDD."
Henning comes from an Irish American family with a long record of leading and supporting the labor movement. His father, Patrick W. Henning Sr., also served as EDD director in the administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger between 2004 and 2009.
His late grandfather, the legendary John Francis "Jack" Henning, was head of the state labor federation, undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Labor in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and U.S. ambassador to New Zealand from 1967 to 1969.
Henning's father, now retired, said he briefed his son on the challenges he'll face trying to right the EDD.
Quoting a Latin proverb, the elder Henning stressed that titles mean nothing if challenges aren't met.
"Both Patrick and the governor have hard work ahead to make the EDD into a better-running agency," he said.
Modernizing the three-decade-old computer system is probably the biggest hurdle ahead, he said.
The younger Henning has held a long list of labor-related jobs before joining the Brown administration at its start. From 2004 to 2011 he was legislative advocate for the California State Council of Laborers.
During the administration of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, Henning worked as assistant secretary for legislation and intergovernmental affairs at the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency. He was deputy director of the California Department of Industrial Relations from 2000 to 2003.
He also worked as a personnel aide to President Bill Clinton in 1999 and 2000 and for Rep. Vic Fazio of California from 1996 to 1999.
Henning, a Democrat, will receive a salary of $150,112 a year in his new job.