SACRAMENTO — California has announced a sweeping overhaul of its troubled Employment Development Department, following months of turmoil that left thousands of Californians struggling to get their unemployment benefits.
A top aide to Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday ordered the agency to hire hundreds of new workers and pay overtime to staffers to beef up the EDD's woeful customer service.
In recent months, jobless workers have found it nearly impossible to reach agents at EDD for assistance after a computer glitch interrupted payments. A Times investigation revealed that as many as 90% of callers seeking information about missed payments or unprocessed claims failed to reach an agency representative.
FOR THE RECORD:
EDD overhaul: An article in the Feb. 8 Section A about an overhaul of the state Employment Development Department misidentified the agency as the Economic Development Department. —
Callers were shunted to a recorded message telling them to seek answers on the EDD website or get help through an automated self-service phone number — options that many unemployed workers had already tried in vain.
As a result, desperate jobless workers found themselves without money to pay the rent or feed their families and no way to reach a human being for help.
David Lanier, the governor's secretary of labor and workforce development, on Friday decried the EDD's "unacceptable levels of payment delays and unanswered phone calls." He announced a seven-point initiative that he said is aimed at improving services.
Those plans include hiring 435 new staffers in the next few weeks and retaining and rehiring 300 temporary and former workers. The agency will also continue paying overtime to its employees to enable them to answer more calls and process more claims.
In addition, the EDD will invest in new phone technology, including a "virtual hold" option. The feature, which is common at airlines and banks, allows callers to leave their number and get a call back rather than be put on hold or disconnected.
"It's clear that to improve service we must retain skilled staff and hire additional workers," Lanier said. "The administration is committed to providing the funding necessary to improve service levels."
News of the plan won praise from some of the department's critics who have been pressing state officials for action.
"It's a great first step," said Cynthia Rice, director of litigation for California Rural Legal Assistance, a nonprofit group that provides legal and social services to the rural poor.
Rice has been critical of the EDD's poor service for non-English-speaking residents and those without computer access.
Assembly Insurance Committee Chairman Henry T. Perea (D-Fresno), who held a hearing to investigate the EDD's subpar performance last fall, said he's heartened that more resources are on the way.
"The state is stepping up to the plate and providing the funding necessary to serve unemployed Californians," Perea said in a statement released by his office.
Some jobless workers, however, were not impressed.
"My initial reaction is total skepticism," said Margaret Black of Santa Monica. The former paralegal says her $430 weekly benefit was interrupted last fall. She said she spent months trying to reach an EDD customer service representative, to no avail.
"It's been frustration," Black said. "Human contact is all that anybody wants."