California to use $415 million from stimulus to aid jobless

California is moving quickly to pump $415 million in federal stimulus money into upgrading job training and placement services at employment centers around the state, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced Tuesday.

A key legislator praised Schwarzenegger for taking advantage of the Obama administration’s largess and making sure that it flows as rapidly as possible into communities that have been hard hit by the recession.

But state Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez (D-Shafter) also blasted the governor for the way the state’s problem-plagued unemployment insurance program is run.

With nearly 800,000 people receiving unemployment checks and more people applying for benefits daily, the unemployment insurance system is severely underfunded. What’s more, it’s handicapped by an obsolete computer system and telephone call centers that force people to dial hundreds of times to reach an operator.


The latest pot of federal money won’t fix the call centers. Rather, it will be used to retrain laid-off workers, particularly in high-demand occupations, including public works construction, healthcare and alternative energy generation and related environmental services, said Patrick Henning, director of the California Employment Development Department.

The federal assistance also will be used to bolster services for the unemployed, such as providing computers for doing resumes and searching online job postings at about 250 One-Stop Career Centers. They are operated by the state EDD and nonprofit partner agencies, such as Goodwill Industries.

About a third of the federal money is earmarked for Southern California, with $44 million going to the city of Los Angeles and $34 million to Los Angeles County. The new funding doubles the federal investment in California job services this year as the state copes with a 10.5% unemployment rate, its highest level in more than a quarter of a century.

“With unemployment affecting historic numbers of Californians in this difficult economy, I am committed to doing everything within my power to provide relief to our unemployed and get Californians back to work,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement.

But the governor must do more to help people who are applying for unemployment benefits and need to contact the state, Florez said. He sent a letter to Schwarzenegger on Tuesday asking him to declare an “economic emergency” that would allow him to send extra workers to answer the phones and to speed up improvements to the EDD’s computers and call centers.

“EDD seems to be operating without a coherent plan to even pick up the phone when [people] call for help,” Florez wrote the governor. “This is unconscionable for many Californians who are struggling economically and need the lifeline of an unemployment check.”

Schwarzenegger is pushing hard to improve the state’s response to unemployment insurance claims during a time of skyrocketing demand, spokeswoman Rachel Cameron said. He recently opened call centers on Saturdays, expanded Internet claim filing options and authorized the hiring of 850 new caseworkers.