People call California’s unemployment phone line. And call and call and call. And they say that too often they get disconnected.

Or they get through, and say the staffer can’t help them. Or the staffer does help, but getting an actual jobless payment remains elusive.

San Francisco-area consumers told these stories Thursday at a news conference organized by Assemblyman David Chiu and Sen. Scott Wiener, both San Francisco Democrats. Their stories about frustration with the state’s Employment Development Department mirror the dozens of tales from frustrated readers who have deluged The Sacramento Bee.

“EDD is truly failing our state. People are suffering tremendously,” said Chiu. He cited not only the consumer frustration, but the findings in The Bee’s report last week describing how the agency was still awarding contracts to Deloitte Consulting LLP, the firm awarded the contract to modernize the systems a decade ago.

“They had a decade to plan for this very moment,” Chiu said.

One by one, workers Thursday told stories that echoed the same complaints that surfaced months ago.

Jenni Rowe: Claim denied, then hundreds of calls

The hotel events manager was furloughed in mid-March. Her unemployment claim was initially denied, yet her colleagues got payments.

She said she’s received one payment while unemployed.

“I’ve called hundreds and hundreds of times,” Rowe said. She got disconnected if she got through at all. She tried asking for help online, and was told she’d get an answer within five to seven days.

She’s still waiting. “It’s been weeks and weeks and weeks with no answer,” Rowe said.

Kathleen Maley: No answer after many attempts

The jewelry maker and designer had to shut down after Gov. Gavin Newsom’s March stay at home order.

Maley applied for benefits, and was told she would get a payment of zero dollars. She tried to call the EDD line, and found. “They couldn’t tell me anything.”

She reapplied in late April. She heard nothing, so she tried calling again. One day she spent the the entire four hours the call center was open dialing and could never get past the recording.

Maley finally got a letter saying the agency needed to verify her identity. She sent in the proper documents. She’s heard nothing back.

To survive financially, “I’ve been using credit cards and savings,” she said. “My business hasn’t been able to open. I don’t know what to do next.”

Taylor Whitehouse: One payment, then none

She lost her jobs as a film location scout and bartender and applied for benefits March 17.

Whitehouse said she got one small payment a month later. She kept certifying that she was unemployed. And so far has received no other payment.

She estimated she’s probably called the EDD call center 100 times. She finally got through to someone, but they didn’t seem able to help.

“I’ve been living on savings, and that’s going to run out pretty soon,” Whitehouse said.

EDD’s response

Department officials say they’re pushing hard to tackle the problems. Newsom in April vowed to take steps to ease the congestion, ordering a new everyday, 12-hour-a-day phone line to be created, but the frustration continues.

After Thursday’s news conference, EDD spokeswoman Lorree Levy said, “The staff at the Employment Development Department care deeply about serving those impacted by this unprecedented pandemic, which hit at a time when the state was seeing record-low unemployment with correspondingly low federal administrative funding and therefore reduced staffing levels.

“We continue to work around the clock, seven days a week, to expand our capacity for processing this unprecedented demand for unemployment benefits as quickly as possible. “

She said the agency is “enhancing our technology systems to increase efficiencies, and have already hired or have offers extended to more than 4,000 new staff needed as part of an expedited mass hiring effort with the increased federal funding we’ve received. We also put in place a chatbot and text message service to help provide Californians answers to their most common questions and help reduce the high demand for the call center.”

The department paid $4 billion in benefits just last week and has processed a total of more than 7 million claims in recent months, almost doubling the claim total over the worst full year of the Great Recession (3.8 million claims in 2010).

An EDD statement last week said it’s “in the midst of a massive hiring effort with the goal of quickly filling more than 4,800 positions statewide over just a matter of weeks.”

As of last week, the agency had hired about 1,200 new staff and was finalizing another 1,400 offers. Another 500 people have conditional job offers and are awaiting background checks.

Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, who last week requested a legislative audit committee look into the problems at EDD, said in his formal request the problems with phones were “an issue that has been commonplace since before the pandemic.”

Thursday, 16 Senate and Assembly Republicans added their names to the request. “These delays are jeopardizing millions of Californian’s ability to put food on the table and a roof over their heads,”said Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita.

“We are demanding change now because so many people are hurting. But, this will not be the end of our criticism and oversight of the EDD,” he said. The audit, Patterson predicted, will “hold this failing department accountable and force them to make permanent changes.”

Over one in three California workers has filed for unemployment benefits since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nonpartisan California Policy Lab reported Thursday.

It saw the trouble as widespread. “The industry and demographic distribution of the last four weeks of claims has been largely unchanged and has become more evenly distributed across industries and demographic groups compared to the beginning of the crisis,” the report said, “confirming the recession is now affecting most sectors and individuals in the state.”

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