SACRAMENTO — They're finally answering phones at California's beleaguered unemployment benefits agency.
Four months ago, 9 out of 10 callers couldn't reach a live staffer at the Employment Development Department, according to official call logs. The system still was robotically hanging up on 80% of frustrated callers as recently as mid-February.
But in March, EDD phone staffers suddenly picked up the pace, responding to a Feb. 7 call for action from the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown. At the same time, the state committed more money and manpower to customer service, and Brown named a new executive director.
As a result, the department is reporting that the hang-up rate has plummeted. During the week that ended March 1, only 38% of calls got automatically disconnected. It dropped again to 18% a week later and to 5% for the week that ended March 15, the most recent figure available.
The dramatic improvement caught even EDD's harshest critics by surprise.
"If these impressive results hold up — and we hope they do — the lesson is clear," said Maurice Emsellem, co-policy director of the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for the unemployed and working poor. "What's required is strong leadership at the top and dedicated resources to get the job done at EDD.... We're hopeful that these latest results foreshadow lasting, sustained progress."
There is still work to be done, both the administration and EDD's critics concede. The department currently is being audited for the way it decides claims eligibility. Its computer system still is bedeviled by a small number of glitches, and a call-back system for claimants' inquiries hasn't been installed.
"Further work is necessary to sustain improvements and build upon them in the months ahead," said Brown's secretary of labor and workforce development, David Lanier.
How did state officials achieve such a quick turnaround? On the surface, the answer seems quite simple: "We put more people on the phones.... Of course, they're going to answer more phone calls," said Sabrina Reed, EDD's deputy director for unemployment insurance.
EDD's phone crew, which answers calls only from 8 a.m. to noon on weekdays, doubled to 300 from a low of 150 late last year, she said.
The extra people, she said, were authorized by Lanier, who directed the agency to fix "unacceptable levels of payment delays and unanswered phone calls." Lanier also approved the hiring of 280 new people, the retention of 250 part-time workers and overtime pay to speed up and streamline claims processing and handling of calls.
That included clearing the remnants of a backlog caused by a computer glitch that delayed payment of jobless benefits to as many as 150,000 claimants last fall.
"Once we got the green light that we'd be able to afford staff, we put them 100% on the phones to address the calls," Reed said. Before, "we could not afford to take people off the claims work [and away from fixing the computer snafu] and put them on the phones."
As a result, the number of times a person had to redial the EDD's toll-free number dropped from an average of 43 attempts per caller in November to just four in mid-March, the call logs said. And the total number of calls handled by a real person more than tripled to 45,349 between the weeks ending Feb. 22 and March 15.
More people answering calls is a major but not the only reason for improved telephone service, Reed said. EDD also gained some breathing room from a reduction in claims fueled by California's declining unemployment rate — 8% in February compared with 9.4% a year earlier.
Congress' failure to further renew unemployment insurance payments for the long-term jobless also reduced the workload by throwing more than 200,000 Californians off the rolls.
Although it's hard to know for sure whether the department's customers are even aware of the better phone service, Assembly Insurance Committee Chairman Henry T. Perea (D-Fresno) says he's fairly sure that positive changes are underway. "I'm not getting as many phone calls" from constituents, he said. "That's when I know things are OK."
Perea said he's optimistic that the results of a state audit he requested will help claimants get payments faster and reduce the number of appeals of EDD eligibility decisions. The assemblyman said he's encouraged that management is streamlining many aspects of its unemployment insurance program.
Among longer-term upgrades are plans for a "virtual hold" phone system that allows claimants to get speedy call-backs when lines are tied up, hiring of information technology experts to help fix lingering computer problems and the eventual installation of a more complete website for filing online claims.
Advocates for the jobless and low-income workers said they were pleased that the governor's office has focused on the severe problems at the department after a nearly yearlong period when it had only an interim director. On March 22, the governor appointed an administration insider, Patrick W. Henning, as the permanent boss.
The uptick in EDD's phone service "is true evidence that the Brown administration has taken the crisis at EDD and for laid-off workers very seriously," said Angie Wei, legislative director for the California Labor Federation. "Putting more human capital there is a solid first step to try and bring better customer service to Californians."