Irate California lawmakers peppered the head of the state Employment Development Department Thursday with questions about its problems in helping unemployed people get their benefits.
The contentious hearing by the Assembly Budget Subcommittee came a day after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a strike team to modernize the agency’s antiquated technology and improve its responsiveness to applicants. The team has 45 days to formulate suggestions.
The assembled lawmakers, who all said they’ve fielded hundreds if not thousands of pleas from constituents desperate for benefits to pay their rent and buy food, grilled Director Sharon Hilliard about the agency’s shortcomings, and expressed dismay about the slow pace of reforms.
Nearly 20% of Californians who have filed for unemployment since the pandemic began are still awaiting payments, according to numbers from Hilliard.
About 6 million Californians filed for unemployment between March 8 and July 18. Of those, 4.8 million have been paid and 162,000 were determined ineligible.
There are about 239,000 claims awaiting resolution, where EDD has all the required information but it needs to take further action to process the claim. That’s about 4% of the total filings. Hilliard said EDD is working to resolve those claims in the order they were filed and hopes to do so by the end of September.
An additional 889,000 people may be eligible if they submit additional information. Of those, 587,000 have never gone into the system to certify their eligibility. EDD has started contacting them by email to educate them about the steps they must take.
“There’s only so much we can do if the claimant isn’t going to go in and certify,” Hilliard said.
“This desperation (among jobless people) is being met by a disinterested bureaucracy failing to answer the phones, reply to emails or offer even the most basic help,” said Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris, D-Laguna Beach (Orange County).
“EDD has been failing California,” said Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco. “We need fundamental reform of this agency at the leadership level; we’ve needed it for years.”
Spending hours fruitlessly trying to call EDD is a widespread issue for jobless Californians.
“We realize the current call center operations are not currently servicing all our customers in a timely manner,” Hilliard said.
The agency needs a long-term solution for its rigid information technology structure, she said. It still relies “on old and obsolete technology, including COBOL which is nearly impossible to modernize.” COBOL is a programming language that dates to 1959.
Other issues addressed during the hearing:
• Long lag time for new supplemental benefits. Congress is still thrashing out a replacement for the extra $600 a week in pandemic benefits that have ended. One solution would call for switching to a system that would replace 70% of claimants’ incomes. Implementing that could take three to five months.
“Any time we get into some kind of calculator based on prior wages, that is very challenging for us, and that’s from 12 to 20 weeks of programming,” Hilliard said.
• Call center issues. Experienced agents who can answer specific questions about claims are available only from 8 a.m. to noon Monday to Friday. EDD has 100 people in this role. It has 1,100 on a general information line open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week and will add 700 to that line the end of this week. Staff on the latter line were trained to provide general information and take callers’ names for call-backs, but Hilliard said EDD is adding “fully trained” agents to that number, without saying how many.
Eventually, the EDD plans to merge the two call centers for more comprehensive coverage, but it won’t even start doing that until mid-October, after it implements “skills-based routing” in which calls go into different buckets depending on customers’ needs, she said.
Hilliard said it takes four to six weeks to return calls from claimants. Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, said many people miss those calls because they come from blocked numbers, which they don’t pick up. Hilliard acknowledged that problem and said EDD is working with Verizon on a solution.
• Digital uploads for documents. Currently, claimants have to mail or fax documents about their cases. By late September, EDD hopes to have a system for uploading the documents online.
“That is one of our highest priority (technology) efforts,” Hilliard said.
• Legislative contacts. Lawmakers have become a liaison between their constituents and EDD. The agency told legislators in July it would limit them to one hardship referral per week, leaving them with impossible decisions about which of their constituents to help. It’s backtracked and now said it will assign a single point of contact for each legislative office to expedite constituents’ claims. By next week, it will give lawmakers formal guidance on how that will work, Hilliard said. The agency now has 93 staff devoted to legislative offices, up from one when the pandemic began.
Several EDD employees spoke up during public comments to say that they understand they’re a lifeline for the public and are working as hard as they can, but feel the agency is underfunded and understaffed.
“We deserve to be more than just a number to you; we deserve to be heard; we deserve to be seen,” said one unemployed woman who called in during the public comments.
A caller named Michelle Wright said she was one of the 889,000 people waiting for benefits. She said she filed a claim on March 21 when her company shut down and has called the toll-free line every week since then, 200 times a day, “only to be hung up on every time. I’ve reached three kind and wonderful specialists at the 800 number that were able to push one payment through. This is my life, my family’s life,” she said, breaking into tears.
Chas Alamo, the principal fiscal and policy analyst for the Legislative Analyst’s Office, said that federal guidelines call for resolving 87% of claims within 21 days. He added that California is normally able to pay 80% within 21 days, but in the second quarter paid 62% within three weeks. The average nationwide during the pandemic, he said, is 69%.