A state appeals court has upheld Alameda County’s right to restrict general assistance welfare payments to able-bodied adults to only six months within each year.

A Court of Appeal panel ruled by a 2-1 vote in San Francisco on Thursday that the county program is legal under a state law that allows counties to limit welfare payments to “employable” adults.

The panel overturned a ruling in which Alameda County Superior Court Judge David Hunter said the county had to define “employable” people as those who have a real chance of finding a job and who do not face barriers such as lack of skills or lack of language fluency.

The court said the county is entitled to classify people who are under 64 and mentally and physically healthy as employable.

Justice William McGuinness wrote, “The Legislature intended to give counties meaningful options to reduce general assistance costs.”

McGuinness said the Legislature was “fully aware that these cost savings would be achieved through reduced or periodically discontinued benefits for certain general assistance recipients who might suffer hardship as a result.”

Justice Stuart Pollak said in a dissent that the definition of employable approved by the court majority is “at odds with the entire scheme of general assistance.”

Pollak wrote, “At a time of widespread unemployment throughout the nation and California and Alameda County in particular, the majority permits the county to terminate the last vestige of relief to thousands of indigents who cannot find work and have no other source of sustenance.”

Stephen Ronfeldt, a lawyer for six general assistance recipients who sued the county, said they will appeal to the California Supreme Court.

Ronfeldt said the limits on the payments would be “devastating” to recipients.

General assistance payments to indigent adults who have no other support are required by the state and paid by counties. In Alameda County, the maximum payment to a single individual is $336 per month.

In the 1990s, the Legislature amended the state’s welfare law to allow counties to limit payments to an “employable individual” to as little as three months within any 12-month period.

In 2007, the Alameda County Social Services Agency decided to limit the payments to six months per year, effective beginning in 2008.

Ronfeldt said the county has delayed implementing the limits while the lawsuit was under way.

He said the agency recently revised its program to restrict the payments further to only three months per year, beginning next year, if the program is upheld.

The court said in the ruling that as of 2008, the county had 8,510 general assistance recipients, 76 percent of whom were classified as employable under the county’s definition.

Alameda County Counsel Richard Winnie, who defended the county program in court, was out of the office today and not available for comment.

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