The Obama administration has asked California to explain how furloughs for state workers are affecting the state's ability to meet an escalating demand for unemployment insurance benefits and services to millions of jobless people.
A regional administrator at the Labor Department this week wrote to the director of the California Employment Development Department, asking him to demonstrate that no decline in the federally financed unemployment insurance program "will occur as the result of this statewide action."
Richard Trigg, who runs the federal Employment and Training Administration's office in San Francisco, gave the state 15 days to reply. He noted that states are obliged by law "to ensure proper and prompt delivery" of unemployment services to claimants and employers.
He noted that federal "grants to the state could be jeopardized" by poor performance in running the California unemployment insurance program.
California's unemployment rate reached a post-World War II high of 12.2% in August. The state is paying more than $30 million a day in benefits to some 2.2 million people, and all of that money is provided by the federal government.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered nearly all the state's approximately 230,000 civil servants to take three unpaid days off each month. Top officials at the EDD and a related agency, the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, have been given some leeway to decide when their workers should stay home.
Critics, including labor unions and advocates for low-wage workers, contend that the governor's insistence on forcing unemployment insurance administration workers to take furloughs is contributing to backlogs in processing benefits and in hearing appeals in disputes over a jobless person's eligibility for the program.
Applicants complain that they have to call repeatedly to reach an EDD call center. The appeals board has a backlog of at least 80,000 cases from workers who have not received their first insurance check.
EDD spokeswoman Loree Levy said her office received the letter Thursday and would need time to reply. The furlough order, she said, hasn't slowed the processing of applications because employees have been told to work without pay on furlough days, with the promise that they'll get compensatory time off in the future.
"They are doing the best they can," said Jeff Wyly, a spokesman for the governor's Labor and Workforce Development Agency, which oversees the EDD and appeals board.