Unemployment board drowns in backlog

August 11, 2009 8:21:43 PM PDT
Thousands of people in California who were denied unemployment benefits are hitting a wall. The board that hears their appeals is so backed up, it's taking months for them to even get an answer. The judges and the governor are both blaming each other. Thousands of people who are denied unemployment benefits usually appeal, but California has the third worst appeals backlog in the country. Korynne Currie lost her job over a year ago and is still waiting for her checks.

"The amount of time it takes from when you apply to when you get appointments for them to actually get the decision is ridiculous. It takes so long," said Korynne Currie, who was denied benefits.

This past fiscal year that just ended in June, 94,025 cases were pending. Last year, in the early part of this recession, it was only half that -- 46,297. And when unemployment was low three to four years ago, the backlog was 28,858.

"None of us were expecting the downturn in our economy, and all states were ill-prepared to deal with the millions of people that showed up at the unemployment offices and especially those that needed the second level of appeal," said Bonnie Garcia from the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board.

California recently hired 57 judges, bringing the total to 205.

The chief judge told the state's unemployment insurance appeals board, that's already making a difference. They closed a record 2,000 cases last month and reduced the average time a case closes to 54 days, but he said the three days a month furloughs ordered by Governor Schwarzenegger could reverse the trend.

"We had originally planned to try and reduce it to a manageable level of fewer than 30, 000 open cases at any given time by 2010. That's been impacted negatively by the furloughs," said Alberto Roldan, the chief administrative law judge.

Governor Schwarzenegger's office said the furloughs are a poor excuse and that the judges' union rules limiting their caseload is a major culprit behind the logjam.

"We don't think it's fair a judge in such an important position should have rules saying they can only work so hard. We think they ought to work a little harder and they could hear more cases per week and knock out all this backlog of cases," said Aaron McLear, the governor's press secretary.

The chief judge said, while the July numbers look good, it is important to note that no one took their furlough days last month and it's conceivable everyone will have to take them at the same time as the fiscal year runs out.

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