For the jobless, California's unemployment judges may be the only authority that can fend off the need for food stamps or welfare.
These administrative law judges, numbering about 200 statewide, are charged with deciding whether the Employment Development Department properly denied unemployment benefits to claimants. Almost half the time, they rule in the claimants' favor.
But now these judges are suffering their own employment troubles. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently ordered them, and other state workers under his control, to take a third unpaid furlough day every month. The extra furlough day is expected to save the state another $425 million through June, but three unpaid days will cost the judges almost 15 percent of their paychecks.
Employment lawyers say the reduced workdays will only add to the backlog of 81,750 cases that were pending before the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board at the end of June. California's unemployment rate has hovered at 11.6 percent for the last two months.
"This agency, more than ever, should be operating at full capacity," said Matthew Goldberg, staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center, which helps former workers, many of them low-wage earners living paycheck to paycheck, with unemployment benefit appeals.
"I have clients where it's taken four or five months from the time someone applied for benefits to the time they received the benefits checks," Goldberg said. "We're seeing really bad consequences for some of these people."
Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, and allies of the judges gathered in front of the board's Oakland office on Friday, calling on the governor to exempt the UIAB from the furlough order. Since the board's work is funded almost entirely with federal dollars, the furloughs don't help the state's cash-strapped general fund, they argue.
"They're jeopardizing their federal funding with their furloughs," said Maurice Emsellem, policy co-director of the National Employment Law Project. "They're really playing with fire."
The U.S. Department of Labor has pushed the state to speed up its processing of unemployment claims, a rate that is one of the slowest in the nation. In a letter sent last December, Deputy Assistant Labor Secretary Brent Orrell urged state officials not to limit hiring or make other cutbacks in agencies that could delay services for the unemployed.
In January, the board itself pleaded with the Schwarzenegger administration not to furlough or lay off its employees. But the governor has refused to exempt the agency.
Even if a department is largely funded by federal dollars, it can be difficult to segregate that money from state dollars, said Lynelle Jolley, spokeswoman for the state Department of Personnel Administration.
"It's like water coming out of a spigot," she said. "It comes from different sources, but once it pours out of the faucet, it's the same water."
And, she said, it's unfair to state workers for some to face furloughs while others are exempt.
In May, the union representing state attorneys and judges filed suit in Alameda County Superior Court, challenging the governor's authority to furlough unemployment judges and workers in dozens of other agencies that operate on non-general fund dollars. The lawsuit is in its early stages.
Administrative law judges contacted by The Recorder declined to talk publicly about the furloughs, citing fear of retribution. One judge said privately, however, that jurists are overwhelmed with cases and can't take on more without risking the quality of their reviews.
Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear told a San Francisco television station Friday that if the judges can't get their work done, they should rewrite "union rules" that cap their workload.
A 2006 legal settlement between the state and the union that represents unemployment judges limits the number of appeals a senior ALJ can hear to 30 a week. The pact includes a mechanism for the UIAB to increase that workload.
McLear did not return a message left with his office.