SACRAMENTO — Thousands of low-wage workers who help care for homebound elderly and disabled people became the latest casualties of the state's protracted budget battle Tuesday when the Wilson Administration said that the government has no legal authority to pay them.
Gov. Pete Wilson, acting through his Department of Social Services, rejected a request from Controller Gray Davis to provide payroll information Davis said he needed to issue checks to the workers.
The 157,000 workers, most of whom are paid the minimum wage, provide services that allow elderly, blind and disabled people to live independently in their own homes. The services, including shopping, cooking, cleaning and transportation for doctor visits, are designed to save the state money by keeping the recipients out of costly hospitals, nursing homes and other institutions.
Orange County social service officials said that Gov. Wilson's decision will have an immediate impact on both the 5,600 home-care providers in the county and the thousands of elderly and disabled whom they serve.
"I don't know what I'm going to do. I can't pay my bills, and this is devastating," said B.J. Bendorf, a 39-year-old Huntington Beach woman who works 50 hours a week bathing, shopping, dressing and doing laundry and other errands for four senior citizens at $4.25 an hour.
"But I won't quit," vowed Bendorf, who lives with her mother and a roommate who are both in-home providers too. "I won't walk out on these people."
Larry Leaman, director of the Orange County Social Services Agency, which administers the state-funded program for homebound adults, said Bendorf's plight is not unique.
The decision to cut off paychecks for providers "is going to mean, basically, that the stress level is going to go up for everyone"--perhaps most acutely for the homebound adults served by the program, he said. "We're dealing here with the most physically frail and vulnerable people in our society, and they're the first to be hit by the budget impasse."
About 6,100 low-income people in Orange County--most of them elderly--now rely on in-home providers for services ranging from cooking and errands to hygiene. The client population has grown about 7% annually in recent years.
Even while the paycheck stoppage may be temporary, county officials expect to see some losses in their work force.
"We hope the providers will continue to hang in there and render their services" without a paycheck, said Leaman. "But we expect to see some providers take a walk. Hopefully, it'll be very few."
The dispute between Davis and Wilson arose as the state closed its 49th day--seven full weeks into the fiscal year--without a spending plan.
Although both houses of the Legislature had scheduled votes for Tuesday on Wilson's proposed budget and a competing plan supported by Democrats, the showdown was postponed for at least a day because the Administration continued to make changes in its proposal.
Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) said the Assembly will begin voting on parts of the governor's package today--even if the Administration is not ready The votes are to begin with the "trailer bills," more than a dozen pieces of legislation that change state laws in ways needed to make either budget work.
Brown, who has been at odds with Wilson over the budget since June, seemed to be headed toward another confrontation with the governor. He said each of the governor's bills would be subject to amendments as it came up. That means the Democrats, who control the house, can change the governor's package before it ever gets to a final vote.
Senate Leader David Roberti (D-Van Nuys) was taking a different tack. He said he was negotiating with Wilson and Senate Republican Leader Ken Maddy of Fresno in hopes of reaching a compromise that could win the votes of Democrats and Republicans.
Until a budget is enacted, the state has no legal authority to pay many of its bills. The schools are paid because the State Constitution requires it. Welfare recipients are getting their money because a federal court ruled that they must. State workers are being paid because the governor and the Legislature, fearing the state would be liable for damages under federal labor law, enacted an emergency measure to allow it.
But a federal judge last week ruled that state need not pay hospitals and doctors who care for the poor or the In-Home Supportive Services workers. Without that order, Davis said he had no authority to pay the doctors and hospitals. But Tuesday he said he believed he should pay the in-home workers because earlier court cases had defined them as state employees, and state employees are being paid.
"It would be unconscionable to deny payment to workers who have already provided services and are legally entitled to be paid," Davis said. He asked the Administration to hand over pay sheets showing how much the workers should be paid.
But a spokeswoman for Wilson said the Administration would not comply.