EDD is ordered to take steps to improve service

SACRAMENTO — California has announced a sweeping overhaul of its troubled Employment Development Department, following months of turmoil that left thousands of Californians struggling to get their unemployment benefits.

A top aide to Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday ordered the agency to hire hundreds of new workers and pay overtime to staffers to beef up the EDD's woeful customer service.

In recent months, jobless workers have found it nearly impossible to reach agents at EDD for assistance after a computer glitch interrupted payments. A Times investigation revealed that as many as 90% of callers seeking information about missed payments or unprocessed claims failed to reach an agency representative.



EDD overhaul: An article in the Feb. 8 Section A about an overhaul of the state Employment Development Department misidentified the agency as the Economic Development Department. —

Callers were shunted to a recorded message telling them to seek answers on the EDD website or get help through an automated self-service phone number — options that many unemployed workers had already tried in vain.

As a result, desperate jobless workers found themselves without money to pay the rent or feed their families and no way to reach a human being for help.

David Lanier, the governor's secretary of labor and workforce development, on Friday decried the EDD's "unacceptable levels of payment delays and unanswered phone calls." He announced a seven-point initiative that he said is aimed at improving services.

Those plans include hiring 435 new staffers in the next few weeks and retaining and rehiring 300 temporary and former workers. The agency will also continue paying overtime to its employees to enable them to answer more calls and process more claims.

In addition, the EDD will invest in new phone technology, including a "virtual hold" option. The feature, which is common at airlines and banks, allows callers to leave their number and get a call back rather than be put on hold or disconnected.

"It's clear that to improve service we must retain skilled staff and hire additional workers," Lanier said. "The administration is committed to providing the funding necessary to improve service levels."

News of the plan won praise from some of the department's critics who have been pressing state officials for action.

"It's a great first step," said Cynthia Rice, director of litigation for California Rural Legal Assistance, a nonprofit group that provides legal and social services to the rural poor.

Rice has been critical of the EDD's poor service for non-English-speaking residents and those without computer access.

Assembly Insurance Committee Chairman Henry T. Perea (D-Fresno), who held a hearing to investigate the EDD's subpar performance last fall, said he's heartened that more resources are on the way.

"The state is stepping up to the plate and providing the funding necessary to serve unemployed Californians," Perea said in a statement released by his office.

Some jobless workers, however, were not impressed.

"My initial reaction is total skepticism," said Margaret Black of Santa Monica. The former paralegal says her $430 weekly benefit was interrupted last fall. She said she spent months trying to reach an EDD customer service representative, to no avail.

"It's been frustration," Black said. "Human contact is all that anybody wants."

The near-collapse of customer service is just the latest headache for EDD, which has struggled since a disastrous launch of an upgraded computer system over the Labor Day weekend. A software glitch delayed payments to about 150,000 Californians, forcing the agency to revert to processing some claims by hand.

Since then, the system continued to be plagued by late payments, high rates of benefit denials and the near-total inability of the jobless to get information about their pending claims. To make matters worse, the EDD suffered from a leadership vacuum and has not had a permanent director for just over a year.

EDD spokeswoman Loree Levy said the agency welcomes new resources from the state to help the 750,000 Californians receiving unemployment benefits.

"Coupled with the ability to hire new staff and retain current staff, the EDD anticipates major gains in being more available to answer our customers' calls and processing their claim work," Levy said.

Brown aide Lanier, however, cautioned that "the challenges EDD faces were years in the making and won't be fixed overnight."

Lanier said the Brown administration also plans to beef up the EDD's information technology expertise by hiring specialists to improve the EDD's three-decade old computer system. Software designed to let the old system communicate with a new one had serious glitches when it went live just after Labor Day weekend.

Maurice Emsellem, co-policy director in Oakland for the National Employment Law Project, said "more staffing and a functioning telephone system" would go "a long way toward improving morale and basic customer service, which has been lacking."

But unemployed security guard Daniel Woodruff of Salinas said his experience with the EDD made him skeptical that the system can be fixed. His benefits were interrupted for three months, forcing him to dip into his retirement savings to pay bills.

"I don't trust the EDD anymore," Woodruff said.

Twitter: @MarcLifsher

Twitter: @rljourno

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<b>Afghanistan provinces:</b>An earlier version of this online article misidentified the names of two Afghanistan provinces. Gardez is the capital of Afghanistan’s Paktia province, not Paktika, and the Obeh district is in the province of Herat, not Heart.