Campaign seeks to reform California's jobless insurance program

This post has been updated with a statement from the Employment Development Department

A community group backed by the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment is organizing a campaign to reform the state's troubled unemployment insurance program. 

The program, administered by the Employment Development Department, has delayed unemployment payments to as many as 150,000 Californians after a botched IT upgrade in late August. 

Frustrated residents have complained to state lawmakers and other elected officials, urging them to fix the problems. Many have reported struggling to make ends meet, falling behind on bills, rent and other expenses. 

"Fix Unemployment Now," as the group is calling itself, will hold a news conference Thursday at a Los Angeles EDD office to announce the campaign. It has launched a hotline so interested residents can participate. 

The group is also hosting a town hall meeting Feb. 6 at which it hopes to come up with ideas to reform the state's unemployment insurance program. Group organizers are also seeking compensation for affected residents from Deloitte Consulting, the New York contractor behind the troubled upgrade.

EDD spokeswoman Loree Levy said in a statement: "Unfortunately, the nature of the eligibility-based Unemployment  Insurance program will always leave some unemployed workers frustrated when they don’t qualify for benefits. But  for those who do, these benefits are essential and EDD has paid close to $3.5 billion in total [unemployment  insurance] benefits, and processed close to 9 million bi-weekly certifications for benefits since early September.

"The EDD believes Californians deserve timely and reliable [unemployment insurance] services and we are just as frustrated as our customers in not being able to provide ample phone service. Unfortunately, we face significant federal underfunding which leaves us short staffed to appropriately deal with demand that remains higher than before the recession. We have already cut costs and created new efficiencies within our operations and are engaged in several other initiatives to try and preserve staff and services. We also hope for a positive response to the governor’s proposed budget which includes additional State funding to support the [unemployment insurance] program."

The campaign launch will come just days after a California lawmaker called for additional state funding and an audit intended to ease problems at the EDD.

Assemblyman Henry T. Perea (D-Fresno) on Monday requested $12 million from the state's general fund to add additional staff to answer phones at the EDD.

Exasperated residents have inundated the agency with calls. A Los Angeles Times article published last week found that as few as 10% of roughly 3.9 million phone calls placed in a week to the EDD are answered.

Perea has also requested an audit of the EDD's appeals process by the state's Joint Legislative Audit Committee. The lawmaker has been critical of the high rate -- more than 50% -- at which denied unemployment benefits claims are reversed during the appeals process.

"Clearly the system is still broken when claimants have to call EDD on average 40 times to get through, and when over 50% of [unemployment insurance] denied claims that are appealed are overturned," Perea said. "My plan lays out a set of reasonable proposals to improve the [unemployment insurance] program, and give claimants better service."


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