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Schwarzenegger blasts unemployment appeals board over backlog

Responding to criticism that furloughs he'd imposed are partly to blame for the pileup of cases, the governor says staffers and appeals judges aren't working hard enough and demands immediate action.

July 30, 2009|Marc Lifsher

SACRAMENTO — Stung by criticism, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger blasted his administration's Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, plagued by a massive backlog in handling appeals of jobless Californians denied unemployment compensation.

The board has blamed the governor's policies for at least part of an 82,500-case pileup, citing state-ordered work furloughs for its employees. Now Schwarzenegger is firing back, saying board staff members, including judges, are not working hard enough.

The governor attacked the six-member board, which includes four of his own appointees, for allowing some judges to work at home. He also denounced the board for signing off on a labor agreement that caps the number of appeals cases that an administrative law judge can hear each week.

"It's outrageous that at a time when the people of California are most in need of their services, these judges are hiding behind a provision in a union contract to avoid work," the governor said in a statement issued by his office.

In a letter late Tuesday night, Schwarzenegger demanded that the board "take immediate action to eliminate these proven obstacles to the public interest."

Board members and staff, during an emergency telephone meeting Wednesday afternoon, disputed most of Schwarzenegger's assertions. They voted to conduct a quick study of the efficiency of the board's limited telecommuting program. They also asked the governor to look into renegotiating the judges' labor contract.

But the main culprit in building the backlog is Schwarzenegger's order that the board's 728 employees take three unpaid days off a month, board members said. The furloughs make it harder to reduce a backlog that's stretched the average case's life to about two months. One board member, Liz Figueroa, a former Democratic state senator, accused Schwarzenegger of "trying to distract from the real problem we are having with the furloughs." The loss of staff hours "is putting us deeper and deeper in trouble, making it almost impossible to serve our workers on a timely basis."

Furloughing board workers won't save the state any money, because almost all the cost of administering the unemployment insurance program is paid by the federal government, U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said. Her agency, which this week sent a team of officials to Sacramento, said it was not legal to furlough state workers paid with federal funds.

Board Chairwoman Bonnie Garcia, a former Republican Assembly member named by Schwarzenegger last year, said she respected the governor's attempt to impose furloughs on all state agencies. But she said she felt compelled to tell him "the truth about what is going on, so he can make a well-informed decision."

Garcia said that only 14 of 205 judges telecommute. Two of those are physically disabled and have the legal right to work from home, she said. The remaining dozen handle second-level appeals that do not involve taking testimony from the public.

Only Schwarzenegger's Department of Personnel Administration can renegotiate a 3-year-old contract with the judges' union that contains caps on cases, Garcia said.

The governor's office said it planned to do that, spokeswoman Rachel Cameron said.

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marc.lifsher@latimes.com

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