INDIANAPOLIS – During the early days of the pandemic, Fred Payne's job as head of the Department of Workforce Development skyrocketed to the forefront for Hoosiers.
He was the face of an agency that was the difference between whether people were buying food for their children, paying rent, getting medication and more.
That's because the department issues unemployment benefits and saw an increase in weekly claims of 70 times the normal during the middle weeks of March last year.
Payne, 49, always maintained a calm demeanor at press briefings – trying to explain the complex world of unemployment that many Hoosiers had been thrust into for the first time.
The husband and father of four generally keeps a low profile. He is practically an enigma on social media and even his state bio is slim.
Rep. Dan Leonard, R-Huntington, has worked on unemployment issues for a decade with the agency and has had little contact with Payne. And that is fine, Leonard says, because Payne has put the right people in the right places – a sign of a good leader.
“He picks good people and trusts them,” Leonard said of Payne. “He isn't in the weeds of any single item but has a grasp on it all.”
But Hoosiers trapped in the unemployment system haven't been as kind online – even creating a Facebook page to navigate it that often calls out Payne.
“Maybe we start a petition to get fred payne fired.. the state totally dropped the ball on this and its appalling,” said one post in June.
Another from January – “How do we reach Fred Payne's *** he is the problem he runs the dwd.”
Payne declined to be interviewed for this story. His staff said he was unavailable for the entire month of February.
But economist Michael Hicks, also director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University, put the agency's task in perspective.
“At a time when nearly all of America's institutions, both public and private, were scrambling to meet the changing environment, DWD likely faced the highest surge in demand for their services. Given the magnitude of the demand, it is difficult to offer anything but praise for the DWD management and leadership response,” he said.
The agency has about 1,200 employees as well as about 300 contractors helping with unemployment calls, adjudication and appeals.
Hicks does have some criticism for the agency in more recent months as it has fallen back on claims of fraud to explain its slow payment of some claims. His own analysis doesn't show a massive increase in fraud and he said many of the questionable cases are errors.
Hicks also noted Indiana was one of only eight states to close the system related to Pandemic Unemployment Assistance in late December for about a month.
“Everyone makes mistakes but by labeling everything as fraud it reduces the pressure on DWD to do their job,” he said. “It gives them a free pass on paying the money to families that need it. And it's a significant drag on Indiana economy too.”
Payne has led the Department of Workforce Development since December 2017. Before that he was at Honda Manufacturing of Indiana for nine years, where as chief administrator he was responsible for the business division consisting of all support functions including legal, information technology, accounting, planning, administration and inclusion and diversity. He also served as general counsel there at one point in his tenure.
Payne has three degrees – the first from Grambling State University in Louisiana where he received a bachelor's degree in political science. He next received a master's in geography at the University of Northern Iowa and then a law degree from Indiana University.
He grew up in Louisiana, according to a video he made for JAG Indiana – a workforce prep program funded by DWD. He stayed local for college because it was the best option for his family financially. On a fluke several years later he visited Indiana University.
“That one day exposure helped me to make up my mind about a future law school,” he said in the video. After practicing law for a few years he moved to Honda and enjoyed being part of building cars. Then Holcomb asked him to join DWD. The governor wanted a focus on connecting people to jobs from someone who had worked in an industrial setting.
In the video, he encourages those in middle school to be confident in themselves and not be afraid to speak up and ask questions. He said knowing how to find an answer is a key employability skill.
Payne is also a member of the board of directors for the IndyEleven Foundation, Honda Federal Credit Union, and Indianapolis Urban League.
At a glance
Here is the amount of money paid out in unemployment claims by the DWD by month:
January 2020 $23.7 million
February 2020 $24.6 million
March 2020 $34.3 million
April 2020 $766 million
May 2020 $1.5 billion
June 2020 $1.3 billion
July 2020 $922 million
August 2020 $397 million
September 2020 $546 million
October 2020 $247 million
November 2020 $339 million
December 2020 $217 million
January 2021 $445 million
February 2021 $362 million
Source: Indiana Department of Workforce Development