SACRAMENTO — Weeks after a computer malfunction interrupted unemployment benefits for as many as 300,000 unemployed Californians, many say they're still struggling to get help from the Employment Development Department.
Some people have gone more than a month without receiving their twice-monthly jobless benefits. And they're reporting difficulty contacting the EDD; jobless workers say their phone calls and emails are going unanswered.
These complaints come despite assurances this week from the agency that the problems are under control.
The EDD has been struggling since
EDD spokeswoman Loree Levy said that backlog has been cleared and that clients are getting the help they need to file their claims.
"All the major issues have been addressed," she said. "We're now in the fine-tuning stage."
But some jobless workers report they're still scrambling to get assistance. A frequent complaint is that the EDD hasn't mailed them the forms they need to continue receiving benefits of up to $450 a week. Recipients who receive unemployment payments must reapply each two weeks to keep their benefits coming.
Vicki Staley of Los Angeles said she filed for unemployment Aug. 9 and has yet to get paid. Staley said she was particularly upset by her inability to get help from EDD on how to navigate the system.
"I'm a smart, college-educated, early 40s professional trying to walk through this procedure for the first time," she wrote in an email. "If I can't figure it out and receive proper help, what of the uneducated people out there lacking the skill to understand something basic."
"This has been a terrible experience and one that I hope I never have to go through again. I'm about to lose my car, my phone, my apartment, everything," she said.
Rikke Wilson of Ventura is also struggling. A business analyst at financial software developer
"When it became clear I wasn't getting paid, I started calling. I literally called 300 times in a row between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m." for three days in a row, she said.
Wilson said she finally found a backdoor phone number for the EDD on an Internet tip page. "I was able to speak with someone, who, after lecturing me for calling, dumped me back into the main number, which hung up on me," she said.
In May, the EDD announced that it would no longer staff its telephone call centers from noon to 5 p.m. because of deep funding cuts by the federal government. Critics say that's made the EDD's already spotty service worse.
"Customer service is a disaster," said Maurice Emsellem, the West Coast co-policy director for the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for the unemployed and working poor.
Lawmakers are concerned as well. The Assembly Insurance Committee has called a hearing Nov. 6 seeking answers from the EDD and its computer contractor
Deloitte has said EDD's system is working and problems are not a result of a "breakdown or flaw in the software Deloitte developed."
An EDD staffer who asked not to be identified because she was unauthorized to speak for the agency said its 30-year-old legacy computer system still doesn't communicate seamlessly with new software developed as part of a $110-million project with Deloitte.
"All the work is hand-entered, i.e. data entry," the staffer said.
In contrast, EDD spokeswoman Levy asserted that "we've cleared all the major issues connected with the launch of the system." She conceded, though, that there may be "a case here and there" that gets sidetracked by "minor defects" in the system.
Some of the complaints from clients, she suggested, could be from people who don't realize that they're not qualified to receive unemployment insurance benefits.
"This system has always produced some unhappy people," she said. "They get through all the paper work and are not eligible to receive payments."