Facing a budget crisis of massive proportions, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger furloughed a number of state employees, including those who process SSI and Social Security disability applications, Medicaid payments, and other benefit and payment programs offered by the federal government but administered by state employees.
The executive order issued by the governor in December 2008 required state agencies to impose a two-day-per-month furlough for state workers, beginning February 2009 and extending to June 2010. In July 2009, with the budget crisis deepening, the Governor ordered a third furlough day per month.
The effect of these executive orders was significant delays in processing benefit applications and applications for payments to service providers. A labor union representing, among others, doctors employed at state facilities (the Union of American Physicians and Dentists) sued the state, alleging that the governor's actions violated state and federal law.
A trial court agreed, and ordered the State to reverse its policy. The State appealed and obtained a stay of the trial court judgment. Union of American Physicians and Dentists (UAPD) v. Schwarzenegger is before a state appeals court in California, where AARP has filed a "friend of the court" brief on behalf of service providers.
The brief, filed by attorneys with AARP Foundation Litigation, argues that the delays in payments irreparably harm beneficiaries who rely on the government benefits for medical, food and shelter needs. "Recipients of public benefits need every dollar of their benefits to survive. With such heavy dependence on this income, the program is critical to the quality of life for many older persons," the brief notes.
It also points out that the furloughs have caused an already sluggish system to get even more hopelessly backlogged. California's Social Security disability determination division alone expects to have to process 389,000 claims this year, a significant increase from the 330,000 of the prior year that is already choking the system. Furloughs will make the process longer and slower, and endanger those awaiting decisions.
AARP is also concerned that the state's actions could be replicated in other states that are facing budget problems. If courts do not emphatically reject this tactic, the damage nationwide could be tremendous. Delay in disability application processing has already reached a "nationwide crisis level," AARP argues, attracting the attention of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. General Accounting Office.
Finally, AARP points out that Congress appropriated $500 million to help process backlogs and the State's furlough program violates state and federal law. "State budget problems do not justify mishandling federal funds designed to assist disabled people," AARP argues.