Normally when a 68-year-old retires after 34 years with the same employer, no one thinks much about it, but when Christine Baker retired as director of California’s Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) in late March, the “suddenness” of the decision left critics and supporters of this powerful agency wondering why.

Baker, the first female director of the California Department of Industrial Relations, retired abruptly and unexpectedly from the agency that administers and enforces state law covering workers’ compensation, workplace safety (Cal/OSHA), wages, hours, overtime, retaliation and apprenticeship programs.

Baker announced her March 30 departure in an e-mail to the department’s 2,900 employees. Her boss, David Lanier, secretary of the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency, also sent a brief notice to the department’s employees thanking Baker for her more than three decades of public service. André Schoorl, undersecretary of the labor and workforce agency, was named acting director.

Radio Silence

Then the story got weird.

Neither Lanier nor the DIR issued a press release on her departure, nor would they comment on it. Baker did not return media phone calls to her home. The only visible change was when the agency deleted her name, photo and biography from its website.

More than a dozen media reports called into question the abruptness of the move, but so far no concrete answers have surfaced.

What is known is that the DIR flunked a State Auditor look at its effort to fight fraud in its Workers’ Compensation division. That came out last December and didn’t find fault with Baker particularly, but chided DIR for failing to use data analytics to put an end to what it termed “millions of dollars” in WC fraud. DIR responded it didn’t agree with the audit report, but did implement the new technology in February of this year.

Another report regarding the DIR surfaced on the State Auditor’s website in April and then removed, saying it was posted “in error.” The Auditor would not say whether there was another investigation into the department.

As for Ms. Baker, retirement as a state employee isn’t exactly a punishment. According to the State Controller’s office listing of public employee salaries, Baker received $177,739 in regular pay and $183,622 in total pay last year. Her estimated pension could equal 95 percent of her highest average annual salary, according to California Public Employees’ Retirement System rules.

By Dave Sorem, P.E.
ECA Government Affairs Chairman