Florez rips Schwarzenegger over EDD problems

California is racked by its highest unemployment rate in 26 years. But Democrats criticized the governor at an April 1 hearing, noting the state is still without a full-time, permanent labor secretary, six months after the previous secretary, Victoria Bradshaw, was promoted to lead Gov. Schwarzenegger’s cabinet.

One Democratic Senator now says the failure of the governor to fill the labor vacancy has added to the problems many out-of-work Californians have had getting their unemployment checks.

“The governor is focused on ex-legislator musical chairs. He can put (Consumer Services Secretary) Fred Aguiar somewhere, create positions for people like (former Assemblywoman) Nicole Parra, find a seat for (former Assemblywoman) Sharon Runner, but he can’t appoint a secretary of labor in our worst econ decline in two decades,” said Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter. “It adds insult to injury that ex-legislators are taken care of, but people can’t get their unemployment checks, because there’s no labor secretary to tell the governor the system isn’t working.”

Florez, a candidate for lieutenant governor next year, is a long-time critic of the Schwarzenegger administration.

Florez was speaking about the well-documented problems of the states Employment Development Department, which administers unemployment benefits to out-of-work Californians. The EDD has been racked with horrible phone service problems that leave laid-off workers unable to reach the office, and unable to collect their benefits. Those problems were the subject of the April 1 Senate hearing.

A Schwarzenegger spokeswoman dismissed Florez’s criticism, and said the acting Labor secretary, Doug Hoffner, is fully committed to the job. “We have someone in there now who’s really doing a great job,” said Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Rachel Cameron. “We’re confident in Mr. Hoffner’s abilities to serve the people of this state.”

Cameron noted the administration has moved quickly to expand unemployment benefits in the state, and is taking steps to address the problems with the EDD’s telephone system. Tuesday, Schwarzenegger announced an additional $415 million in federal stimulus to upgrade job training centers around the state.

“Under the governor’s leadership, California was one of the first states to receive an additional $25 per week for the unemployed, and he just signed legislation to extend unemployment benefits an additional 20 weeks to help out-of-work Californians,” she said.

“Additionally, we have opened call centers on Saturdays, expanded online options for filing claims and are in the process of hiring 850 more people to respond to unemployment claims.”

But Florez says it’s not enough. “Folks are going 2-3 months without checks in their darkest hour because can’t get through on the phone,” he said.  

The state has formally been without a Labor secretary since Bradshaw’s promotion was announced on October 1. She was replaced on an interim basis by Hoffner, 34, a former deputy cabinet secretary for Schwarzenegger.

Florez’s criticism that the job remains vacant while the state’s economy suffers is partially semantic. Labor appointees typically face a perilous confirmation road in the state Senate, and by naming Hoffner as an “acting director,” it allows the administration to avoid a bloody confirmation fight, and allows Hoffner to serve as de facto secretary indefinitely.

And if last week was any indication, Hoffner isn’t making himself any friends among the Senators who would have to vote on his confirmation, were he to be formally nominated by Schwarzenegger. Hoffner was a recent no-show at a Senate hearing looking at the the problems of the state’s beleagured EDD system. That earned the ire of Florez, who co-chaired the hearing.

“I am disturbed that Douglas Hoffner, the governor’s acting labor secretary, did not make the effort to join us here today. I don’t understand that,” said Florez. “We have one of the largest unemployment rates in a couple of decades, and we have an acting labor secretary who called in sick today. I think it’s inexcusable.”

You can listen to Florez’s pointed opening comments here (beginning at the 9:35 mark).

The problems at EDD have been well documented. A state auditor’s report back in 2001 indicated the state needed to invest more than $60 million to modernize the department’s phone system. Meanwhile, people who lose their jobs often have difficulty getting through to the state to apply for unemployment benefits. Last year, the Los Angeles Times reported that in January 2008,”nearly 12.6 million calls were placed to the state's toll-free phone number to apply for unemployment insurance benefits. But more than three-fifths never got through.”

And that was when the state’s unemployment rate was at 6 percent. The most recent figures indicate the state’s unemployment rate is now at 10.5 percent.

Florez blasted Hoffner at the hearing last week, saying his absence was “very indicative of a system … that doesn’t listen or respond adequately to taxpayers.” In a follow-up letter to Gov. Schwarzenegger released Tuesday, Florez called the problems at EDD “the largest single failure of government that I have encountered during my tenure in the Legislature.

The stated mission of the agency is to “provide leadership to protect and improve the well-being of California’s current and future workforce.” But click on the link to Hoffner’s welcome message, and you only get a text notice that reads, “coming soon.”

Labor leaders say they are frustrated the governor has not filled the vacancy.

“The labor secretary sets the tone for the priorities of the administration, making sure the administration is completely abreast of developments. It is very important to have a labor secretary at a time when problems are stacking up that need to be addressed,” said Willie Pelote, the California Political Director for the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees.

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