Jobless benefit phones jammed

Times Staff Writer

Think it’s bad losing your job in the middle of hard times? Try calling the state for help.

In January, with the unemployment rate nearing 6%, nearly 12.6 million calls were placed to the state’s toll-free phone number to apply for unemployment insurance benefits. But more than three-fifths never got through.

Frank Hartzell knows the problem all too well. A laid-off Mendocino County social services worker, he tried calling morning and afternoon, 45 times in December. The computer hung up every time until No. 46, and he was able to apply.


In January it happened again. He tried 39 more times before he reached the Employment Development Department to find out why his checks had stopped.

“We understand that it’s frustrating, but EDD has taken steps to reduce the backlog,” a spokeswoman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said.

State officials say they are scrambling to answer phones and process applications in the face of a large cut in federal funding. The proportion of unsuccessful calls was up to 62% in January. But it was down to 33% in March, the spokeswoman said. On Tuesday, a reporter got through on two of six tries.

Hartzell remains exasperated. The phone system hung up on him 13 times one day last week. “It’s a form of torture,” he said.

As the job outlook worsens, the unemployed keep calling the line. “It’s frustrating,” said Babbett Killpatrick, who handles inquiries at the state’s Hollywood call center. “Individuals contact us who haven’t been able to get through for months. They’re hungry and can’t buy gas.”

One caller last week wept after hundreds of unsuccessful calls, she said. “There’s no reason for government to turn a blind eye when they see these things happening.”

The state’s six call centers are “overworked and understaffed,” said Adrienne Suffin, an eligibility representative in San Francisco. “EDD has not kept up in terms of hiring.”

According to the Employment Development Department, as many as 440 call-center representatives staff the phones at peak hours.

Poor customer service has been the norm in recent years at the department. Four years ago, a Schwarzenegger-administration government-overhaul plan noted that “as many as 50% of the callers into their call centers receive a busy signal creating an irritating situation.”

The outlook could get worse. Last week the number of unemployment claims jumped 21% to 40,000, compared with the same week in 2007, and the state’s unemployment rate rose to 5.7% in February from 5% a year earlier. On Friday the U.S. Labor Department reported that 80,000 nonfarm jobs were lost in March, the biggest decline in five years.

The subpar call-center performance hurts both working people and their employers, who pay the unemployment insurance payroll taxes, said Employment Development Director Patrick Henning. Weekly unemployment benefits in California can be as high as $450 and last for up to six months.

“It is poor service to the people who are on unemployment at a time that’s tragic for them after they’ve lost their jobs,” Henning said. He said he was paying overtime to cut the backlog in approving claims, which are being backdated because of delays in reaching operators.

In the meantime, he urged applicants to file their claims on the Internet at to avoid clogging up the state’s already overburdened telephone system.

But filing an Internet application is no panacea, cautioned Thom Davis, business manager for Local 80 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees in Burbank. “It doesn’t work so well either. The servers get so clogged up and it freezes,” he said.

The Employment Development electronic filing system is “very un-user friendly,” said John Hillman, a call-center worker in San Francisco. Many e-filers get confused and make mistakes that disqualify their applications. They wind up getting back on the phone and “causing high call volume.”

That’s what happened to Page Williams, a veteran stagehand at a Burbank sound stage, when she was out of work during the recent writers strike. “I’d sit on the phone for two or three hours, just dialing and dialing,” she said. “Something definitely needs to be fixed here.”