Janessa Rivera fills out a form for unemployment benefits at the California… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)
Reporting from Sacramento and Los Angeles — Stung by criticism over delayed unemployment extension checks, the Schwarzenegger administration acted to speed up payments to 121,000 long-term jobless Californians, many of whom have been without benefits for more than a month.
Checks could arrive as early as midweek, with filings possibly starting Sunday, said Loree Levy, spokeswoman for the state Employment Development Department. The jobs agency had said days earlier that the payments from a federally approved extension of at least 14 weeks could be delayed until the week of Christmas -- or even into the new year.
The rapid response came as the agency decided to work around its usual paperwork and begin sending checks out right away, with agency staffers working through the weekend to prepare filings in advance of mailing the payments.
Even before the agency said the checks would be more than a month late, complaints had been pouring in from lawmakers, social service advocates and the jobless, many of whom had exhausted their maximum 79 weeks of benefits.
An additional 14 weeks of checks went into effect Nov. 8 after being approved by Congress and President Obama, but the payments in California never went out.
The jobs agency had blamed its antiquated 30-year-old computer system for complicating programming that needed to be updated to administer the new extension. But things changed in the last few days as criticism mounted.
News of the accelerated checks came Friday after a blunt letter sent to EDD Director Patrick Henning from his boss, Labor and Workforce Development Agency Secretary Victoria Bradshaw.
She ordered that extension benefits arrive in mailboxes by the middle of next week and also expressed concern over the EDD's drawn-out process of updating its computer programming.
"I understand the difficulties presented by multiple federal extensions," she wrote, "but ensuring that unemployed Californians receive their benefit checks in a timely manner is of paramount concern to the unemployed and to the economy."
The EDD already had the same idea, according to Levy, who said that Bradshaw's letter was a "meeting of the minds" and a sign that "everyone in the administration is in agreement about the urgent need to issue the checks as soon as possible."
Angie Wei, a lobbyist for the California Labor Federation, said the letter was an attempt at shifting blame, "a cheap political shot at a time when workers need real relief."
"Rather than pointing fingers, the governor's office should be doing a serious review and evaluation and action plan to modernize our broken, dinosaur computer system," she said.
In the letter, Bradshaw also directed the EDD to work with career centers, local governments and schools to inform the public of free Internet services to encourage those eligible for an extension to file claims online.
To "reaffirm" Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's "commitment to ensuring the EDD has the resources it needs . . . to ensure benchmarks to a more successful program," Bradshaw also wrote that her undersecretary, Doug Hoffner, would serve as a liaison between the agencies.
But state officials have long have been aware of the precarious condition of the EDD's archaic computer system, said Maurice Emsellem, policy co-director for the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for the working poor.
"This is a problem that preexisted this recession and the last recession," he said. "It's no secret to Bradshaw and everybody else that the system is broken. EDD is now on the firing line, but there are lots of other state officials who had an opportunity to fix this mess."
Emsellem added: "There's no state in the country whose system is more out of whack than California."
Henning, 63, who is retiring as the head of the EDD on Thursday without an official replacement, stayed out of the fray. "Mr. Henning will follow instructions," he quipped.
By Monday, the EDD will automatically file new extension claims for all the 121,000 Californians who have already exhausted their benefits, Levy said.
They will begin receiving their first checks by the end of next week, though some in Northern California may get them as soon as Wednesday.
Though the checks are issued for two-week periods and are normally sent every two weeks, those who have already met their maximum will instead see a "rapid succession" of payments to catch up on all the money owed since early November, Levy said.
The jobs agency will also be sending out claim forms and a note about the automatic application to eligible individuals, including 164,000 more Californians expected to use up their benefits by the end of the year, she said.
"As they're working on getting us that claim form, we're working on getting them that first check," Levy said. "We're very happy about it. We've been really, truly committed to getting these checks out the door as quickly before Christmas as possible."
The new payment schedule is "phenomenal news," said Christopher Boxley, 27, of Santa Ana. The former assistant account executive at a retail marketing agency lost his job in August 2007, had to move back in with his parents and now pulls in about $850 for every two-week unemployment check.
"If we get the checks in the mail before Christmas," he said, "we might be able to buy presents before Christmas instead of borrowing money from our parents to buy presents for them."
The EDD's new plan is "a godsend," Boxley said.
"If I was a decision maker, that's pretty much what I would be implementing," he said. "Those retailers who are being hit hard will have some money, and families won't be worried about paying the bills."