County Tackles Welfare Backlog : Economy: Supervisors approve hiring 76 temporary workers to process applications for food, shelter and medical assistance.

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Responding to a crush of welfare applications caused by a weak economy, Ventura County supervisors agreed Tuesday to hire 76 new workers on a temporary basis to cut the time it takes to get payments to the needy.

New welfare recipients now wait up to three months for food, shelter and medical care, said James E. Isom, director of the county's welfare agency. And the backlog--which reflects an 18-month recession--is still growing.

"The economy is killing us," said Isom, whose department caseload sets all-time records every month. "Caseloads are literally going off the charts."

The Board of Supervisors agreed to spend $1.7 million in state and federal funds over the next seven months to cut a mountain of backlogged cases that grew from 450 in May to 900 last month.

The state requires that applicants be paid within 1 1/2 months, but Ventura County has not met that goal for more than a year. Welfare cases of all types--aid to children, food stamps, general relief and Medi-Cal--increased 22% in the year ending in September, Isom reported.

Since 1988, county welfare rolls have increased from 18,000 cases to the present 32,356, officials said.

The county action comes as Gov. Pete Wilson is pursuing a new initiative to reduce welfare benefits statewide to some poor families by nearly 25%. But Wilson's proposed November ballot measure would apparently have little effect on spiraling Ventura County caseloads since it would cut payments, not eligibility.

Not even the severe recession of 1981 prompted increases such as the present ones, officials said. Applications during that recession peaked for about two months, but then declined sharply, they said.

"I have never seen anything like this before," said Isom's deputy, Helen Reyburn, a 23-year welfare department veteran. "We've never seen this sustained increase."

Even the types of recipients have changed considerably this year as lost jobs forced lifelong workers to apply for assistance for the first time, Reyburn said.

"It's common now for a new applicant to be what you think of as middle-class people who are out of work and have not been able to find other employment," she said.

Verlin Peoples of Oxnard is typical. The 30-year-old security guard was laid off when Abex Aerospace cut back this year, and he has struggled to find permanent work ever since.

A temporary job in a local manufacturing plant ended this month, and Peoples was among about 100 applicants in line at the busy Oxnard welfare office Tuesday afternoon.

"I'm willing to do anything. But I can't find it, and I need to buy food," Peoples said. He was applying for food stamps.

The Oxnard welfare office is one of four in the county, but is by far the largest. About 650 of the 900 backlogged cases are there, officials said.

Peoples and others waiting in line said they don't know how they can hold out until they get help.

Debbie Umathun, 27, said she and her 9-month-old daughter, Mariah, faced eviction Tuesday unless she could come up with $300 in overdue rent.

"I'm scared if I don't get the money today (that) me and my baby will be out on the streets," Umathun said, breaking into tears. Her family lives in Washington state, and she knows no one locally who will take her in, she said.

Reyburn said the county responds to such emergencies by paying applicants $200 immediately. But that is all they get until their applications are fully reviewed and payments approved.

Of all the four main welfare programs, Medi-Cal has experienced the greatest surge in demand, officials reported. The caseload has jumped from about 6,000 in 1987 to 13,422 this fall.

Requests for food stamps have increased from 6,500 in 1987 to 10,207 in September. For the same period, cases of Aid to Families With Dependent Children are up from about 6,300 to 8,220, and general relief has increased from 150 cases in 1987 to 387.

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