Imagine you've lost your job, which doesn't take a lot of imagination in a state with 1.3 million people out of work. Now imagine your unemployment checks have stopped and you can't decipher the explanation from the state Employment Development Department. So you call the phone number on the form and it rings … and rings … and rings….
That's the reality for countless Californians who have turned to the state's unemployment office for help, only to find that the phones go unanswered. Not just occasionally but a preponderance of the time. As The Times has reported, as few as 1 in 10 of 3.9 million calls a week were answered by an actual human being in the last three months of 2013.
There are reasons for this. The department gets the bulk of its administrative budget for handling unemployment and some disability benefits from the federal government, and that has dropped from a peak of $645 million in 2010 to $477 million in the most recent fiscal year, covering only 73% of the state's cost. The Brown administration has scrambled for funds from state sources and has cut costs, including department staff — from 3,800 workers at the peak of the recession to about 2,500 in late November.
One of the empty positions is at the top, vacant since Director Pamela Harris retired in August. Her departure came just before a botched computer upgrade over the Labor Day weekend that delayed payments to about 150,000 people. To catch up, staffers were reassigned from answering phones to processing paperwork by hand. So a fix for one crisis exacerbated a problem elsewhere.