LOS ANGELES – The payday loan industry has found a new and lucrative source of business: the unemployed.

Payday lenders, which typically provide workers with cash advances on their paychecks, are offering the same service to those covered by unemployment insurance.

No job? No problem. A typical unemployed Californian receiving $300 a week in benefits can walk into one of hundreds of storefront operations statewide and walk out with $255 well before that government check arrives — for a $45 fee. Annualized, that’s an interest rate of 459 percent, the maximum annual interest rate allowed in California.

APRs in other states are even higher: nearly 782 percent in Wyoming and 870 percent in Maine.

Critics of the practice, which has grown as the jobless rate has increased, say these pricey loans are sending the unemployed into a cycle of debt from which it will be tough to emerge.

Many payday clients pay off their loans and immediately take out another, or borrow from a second lender to pay off the first, and sink ever deeper into debt. Typical customers take out such loans about 10 times a year, by some estimates.

Lenders “market the product to give the illusion of assistance,” said Ginna Green, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Center for Responsible Lending. “But instead of throwing them a life jacket they’re throwing them a cinder block.”

The industry sees it as a service, providing short-term loans to people who wouldn’t stand a chance with a conventional bank.

What’s clear is that in California, where unemployment hit 12.4 percent in December, some jobless workers in need of quick cash turn to payday lenders, regardless of cost.

Ed Reyes, a Los Angeles resident who lost his job in retail about six months ago, said he has had to take out payday loans three times since becoming unemployed. The advances on his government check, he said, have helped him pay his household bills before late charges accrue.

“To be honest, I didn’t know if they’d give me one, but they did,” he said, standing outside the unemployment benefits office in downtown Los Angeles.

Ignacio Rodrigues, a clerk at Van Nuys payday lender Ace Cash Express, said about a quarter of first-time borrowers he sees use unemployment checks as proof of income.

“They just need extra money, and we do it,” he said of the instant loans.

With regular unemployment checks rolling in, the jobless can be reliable borrowers for payday lenders. By law, the lenders can charge a $15 fee for every $100 borrowed. The maximum loan in California is $300 — which coincidentally is the just about the size of the average Golden State unemployment check.

The borrower leaves a postdated personal check to cover the loan and fee, which the lender can cash after about two weeks.

The high rates charged for such loans are blasted by critics. But Steven Schlein, a spokesman for payday lender trade group Community Financial Services Association of America, defended offering the loans to the unemployed, saying the critics don’t understand the realities of scraping by.

“Who are they to decide?” Schlein said. “We issue billions of dollars of credit. They issue platitudes and pats on the back.

“These people need money. They tell them to go to their relatives. These people have bills to pay. These people need to go to job interviews. They need credit.”

Payday lenders have been controversial since the industry expanded rapidly in the 1990s, with critics accusing the outfits of preying on the poor. Arkansas, Georgia, New Jersey and New York have virtually banned the institutions.

In 2006, Congress stymied payday loans to military personnel, passing a law capping interest at rates prohibitively low for payday lenders. The legislation was spurred by concern that payday loan debt was affecting morale and readiness for deployment.