To those seeking jobless benefits, agency gave customer disservice

Suzanne Dinatale lost her job as sales manager for a biotech company in July. She applied almost immediately for unemployment benefits to help cushion the blow.

Dinatale, 41, of Manhattan Beach, said she had no problem receiving the forms she needed to get the ball rolling with California's Employment Development Department.

"After that, nothing," she told me. "I called them and got hung up on. I sent emails that got no responses."

Dinatale is now dipping into her retirement savings to get by.


"This is the first time I've ever needed unemployment," she said. "I thought it was supposed to be a benefit, that it would be there if you need it. But I'm not seeing any help."

It's an experience that thousands of Californians have shared in recent weeks as the EDD grapples with the computer upgrade from hell, featuring Deloitte Consulting, the company handling the $110-million software switch-over, as Satan's little helper.

Technical glitches since Labor Day created a backlog in twice-monthly unemployment payments of tens of thousands of cases — as many as 300,000 cases by some estimates. Or roughly half that number by the EDD's reckoning.

That's tens of thousands of people not receiving the timely assistance they'd been promised to help pay the rent, buy food and generally survive amid shaky economic times.

The Assembly is scheduled to look into the matter Wednesday — not that this will help anyone now. The goal, said Henry T. Perea, a Fresno Democrat who chairs the Assembly's Insurance Committee, is to make sure a mess like this never happens again.

The EDD, for its part, said last week that most of its computer bugs finally have been squashed and that its new-and-improved processing system was up and running.

But I've heard from dozens of people in recent days who say they're still smarting from the runaround they received from government bureaucrats.

Allen Bryan, 61, of Carlsbad said he lost his job as a loan processor at Union Bank in September. Dealing with the EDD, he said, was like talking to himself.

"I could give them information, but I wouldn't get anything back," Bryan said. "I had no idea whether they were getting my stuff."

Jacqueline Cantalupo, 62, of La Quinta had a similar experience after she left her job as purchasing director for a medical-diagnostic company in July.

"I got my first unemployment check," she said. "After that, nothing. I tried phoning them. I tried emailing them. Nothing."

This was the main beef I heard again and again in my conversations with people who tried to navigate the EDD's obstacle course.

They understood that technology can sometimes stub its digital toes. What steamed their clams was the way the EDD kept benefit seekers at arm's length.

Emails weren't acknowledged. Claim forms weren't mailed out. The agency's phones simply went unanswered.

"I kept trying to call them," said Jake Olinka, 28, of West Los Angeles. "I just couldn't get through."

He lost his job at a drug-treatment center in August. He's since been running up the balance on his credit card while trying, in vain, to claim the unemployment benefits that by law should be his.

"What's amazing is that if you go to the EDD's website, it looks like nothing is wrong," Olinka said. "It almost feels like they're pretending that nothing has happened."

That's an extra kick in the teeth to a lot of people who are struggling to get by.

Mark Hess, 55, of Woodland Hills has it a bit better than others who are completely out of work. His hours at a fundraising firm were cut back earlier this year and he's relied on partial unemployment payments to pay his bills.

Since August, when the EDD's computers went kerblooey, Hess hasn't received any checks nor any of the forms he needs to apply for additional payments.

"I'm cutting back elsewhere," he said, "but it's tough."

And it's not just people with job issues. It's people seeking disability coverage, which also is handled by the EDD.

Shannon Bellamy, 47, of Winnetka has been dealing with severe headaches. They've gotten so bad that she had to go on medical leave last month from her job as an underwriting manager for an insurance company.

Bellamy tried to apply online for disability payments. She tried to call the EDD. Like others, she kept running into a brick wall.

"That's difficult to deal with when you're also dealing with a medical problem," Bellamy said.

I wanted to ask someone at Deloitte how the company explains such troubles resulting from work that was supposed to cost $58 million but instead ran up a tab about twice as large.

I wouldn't have minded asking how the EDD project compared with a separate gig in which Deloitte was hired by California officials in 2003 to connect computers in every municipal and state court.

That work was originally estimated to cost $33 million. After about 10 times that amount had been spent, officials pulled the plug on the project. A final bill of nearly $2 billion was forecast if things had continued.

Unfortunately, no one at Deloitte responded to my calls or emails.

Loree Levy, a spokeswoman for the EDD, said the agency feels bad about what happened to people who needed jobless benefits.

"The EDD sincerely apologizes to those customers who did suffer the impact of our temporary backlog," she said. "We truly do understand just how critically important these benefits are to those who are unemployed, their families and their communities where these funds help sustain basic services."

That's nice. And I think we can all agree that stuff happens.

Being jobless, though, is hard enough. If the EDD can't make things better, it certainly shouldn't make them worse.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. he also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to