NOTE: Legislative Republicans have asked for the Joint Legislative Audit Committee for an audit of the Employment Development Department. Click here to read the press release and here to access the letter.
By Maria L. La Ganga, Patrick McGreevy
July 11, 2020
Barry Levine has blown through two-thirds of his life savings while waiting for his unemployment insurance claim to be processed. He figures that, by sometime in September, he will have nothing left.
In the 10 weeks since the 52-year-old freelance ad copywriter and occasional actor applied for benefits, he has called the California Employment Development Department “thousands of times,” he said, just to reach a human being.
His application has gone missing in the overburdened state agency, which has processed 7.5 million unemployment claims since the pandemic sent the economy reeling in March — nearly doubling the number filed during the worst full year of the Great Recession.
“It takes 150 redials before I get lucky and get someone on the phone,” he said. “I would try when I had time, half an hour here, an hour there. I’m not getting through, but I see no other way to contact these people, and I’m unemployed. This sort of became my de facto job — trying to get in touch with them to follow up the claim.” ….
June 18, 2020
Those who have filed unemployment claims in vain say dealing with the EDD feels like life with an emotionally abusive partner: They never know if their actions will be rewarded or punished. They live in constant anxiety and fear. The world is random, treacherous, without logic. A single mistake could mean disaster. And they cannot imagine a way out.
… In May, EDD reported receiving around 12 million calls a week from up to 645,000 individuals and was able to answer just 20% to 23% of the unique calls each week. In June, the agency recorded 11 million call attempts from 500,000 individuals and was able to answer 27% of the calls with a live service representative.
That month, @CaUnemployed cropped up on Twitter to highlight people’s struggles with the agency; its creator is an unemployed hotel worker named Leah who called EDD 300 times in one day without ever getting through.
Leah doesn’t want her last name used. She fears that it could jeopardize her claim. Fifteen weeks have passed since she filed for benefits. Neither she nor Levine has received a penny from the state. …
… Leah’s months-long EDD saga is replete with fax machines in the email era, a letter of response from the beleaguered agency in Spanish (which she doesn’t speak), conflicting answers about her claim status and a cameo appearance by a California legislator.
Leah is 28 years old and lives with her sister in Studio City. She had just started working at a Southern California hotel when the pandemic hit. She was furloughed in late March and filed for unemployment benefits the first week in April. ..
… Waited a couple of weeks. Figured the EDD was overwhelmed. Waited a while longer. Then she started calling. And calling. And calling. And no one ever answered the phone. Three hundred redials in a single day. Crickets. Finally, in mid-May, a woman from the agency called out of the blue and said Leah’s claim had been approved.
But when Leah hung up the phone, her elation fizzled. She’d forgotten to ask for an account number. The customer service rep did not offer it. You cannot access the EDD website without those crucial digits.
So she called and called and called again. When she finally got through, she was told she hadn’t been approved after all. A while later, the letter in Spanish arrived. She used Google Translate to decipher the document. It included her account number. But she still could not log on.
So what did she do? Started calling yet again. …
“I was told by someone last week not to expect anything for four to six weeks,” she said Tuesday. “That will put us in August. Throughout all of this, I just became more and more frustrated and upset. My sister lost her job at the same time. She was able to get unemployment easily. I don’t know why. We’ve been living on one person’s unemployment.” …
“I know how everyone feels. They feel like they’ve been left behind,” Leah said. “You shouldn’t have to fight so hard. … I understand the system is overwhelmed. I totally get that. But that’s not a good enough excuse at this point when this many people are this desperate.”
Lawmakers throughout the state have been intervening to help their constituents. State Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa) said his office has so far been able to get EDD to resolve 150 of some 600 cases where people were unable to get claims approved on their own.
Moorlach said he believes antiquated computers are holding up the processing of many complaints. Callers have told his staff that EDD service representatives sometimes say they cannot access automated files. The technology problems extend to the agency’s call centers.
For years, the call center has operated from 8 a.m. until noon. After the pandemic began, callers complained about the limited hours, so a second call center operating from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. was set up. But many of the agency’s service representatives cannot help resolve specific problems with people’s claims. Callers complain they’ve repeatedly gotten recorded messages saying the system is overwhelmed. And then they’re disconnected. …
[Gov. Gavin] Newsom said the state faces a “historic backlog” of claims … and he said more than $3.5 billion in benefits has been paid out in just the last week.
“It’s $3.5 billion, but it’s not enough. We’ve got to do more. We’ve got to do better,” Newsom said. “We own the experience. We own the resolve to focus in, learn lessons and fix things as we work through this surge.”
That’s cold comfort for Polina Izotova, who worked at the front desk of a Santa Monica hotel until guests stopped arriving and the staff was furloughed. She has been waiting for her claim to be approved for nearly four months. …
And Barry Levine? He’s still waiting. He is grateful that the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program was expanded to include gig workers and freelancers like him. But the system for delivering unemployment benefits in California, he said, must be fixed.
If it isn’t, Levine said, “I have to imagine that thousands of additional people in California are going to go hungry and join the already catastrophic homeless crisis, and many may even die, making the worst possible versions of this pandemic a grim reality.”
Click here to read the article published in the Los Angeles Times.