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Newsletter: The unemployment claim mess

Maria Mora in front of a closed California State Employment Development Department office
Maria Mora is reflected in a window as she photographs telephone numbers from a poster in front of the closed California State Employment Development Department in Canoga Park in May.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, Aug. 6.

If you are one of the millions of Californians who have filed unemployment claims in recent months, you are probably all too familiar with the Kafka-esque nightmare at hand.

Perhaps you have spent days on the phone, dialing the same seemingly dead-end numbers over and over again, sometimes upwards of a hundred times in a single morning. It’s possible that you’ve been desperately waiting weeks, or even months, for money to arrive, as the rest of your bills mount. Maybe you’ve been hung up on, or promised a call back that never came. (If so, you had best keep your phone charged for the long haul. Agency officials have said that the current wait time for workers to call back customers with problems is four to six weeks.)

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All of which is to say, if you feel personally victimized by the California Employment Development Department, you are not alone. Far from it.

[Read more: “‘It takes 150 redials’: Horror stories from Californians filing unemployment claims, getting no results” in the Los Angeles Times]

Why has all of this been such a disaster?

When the pandemic forced millions of Californians into unemployment or job uncertainty in mid-March, California was in a period of relatively low unemployment, meaning staffing at the agency was a fraction of what it would need to be to handle a sudden tidal wave of claims, let alone one of such gargantuan proportions. And the influx itself was unprecedented: As of last week, the EDD had processed 9.3 million claims from people who lost jobs or work hours since March, more than double the number filed during the worst year of the Great Recession.

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As my colleagues explained back in April, what followed was a kind of “perfect storm of failures,” as a historic number of desperate Californians flooded state technology systems that were woefully unprepared for a disaster of this magnitude. (The EDD, like unemployment offices in several other states, still runs at least some of its system using an antiquated computer language known as COBOL that was invented while Dwight D. Eisenhower was still in the Oval Office.)

A historic influx quickly became a historic backlog, as the processing of claims was hampered by outdated technology, bureaucratic red tape and a shortage of trained, experienced staff.

As my colleague and longtime state government reporter Patrick McGreevy has reported, the EDD redirected hundreds of its employees to help with claims processing and brought in hundreds of workers from other state agencies. The department also is hiring 5,300 other workers to help out. But full-time employees and temporary hires alike told Patrick that despite working long hours, including weekends, they often feel helpless to resolve problems for anguished Californians who have been out of work for months and often call crying or angry.

[Read the story: “California unemployment agency workers say internal problems are stalling claims process” in the Los Angeles Times]

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One employee said she was given an 800-page instruction manual that contained numerous possible scenarios for unemployment claims and was left to fend for herself, as her supervisors changed weekly and her work was stymied by the agency’s old computer system and confusing regulations.

“We understand we are the lifeline for many struggling Californians, but we are understaffed and underfunded,” Barbara Fales, a longtime EDD employee, told Patrick.

What comes next?

There have been a number of recent developments. Last Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that he was forming a “strike team” to address issues with the system and streamline the process for resolving claims.

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Newsom acknowledged last week that nearly 1 million unpaid claims may be eligible for payment but require more information, with estimates that the backlog won’t be eliminated until the end of September. As Patrick explained in his story, the governor’s announcement came on the eve of a legislative hearing where department officials were expected to be grilled about problems with the unemployment insurance program. And grilled they were.

During an hours-long hearing of an Assembly budget subcommittee on state administration last Thursday, California lawmakers lashed out at a plan that would take two months to resolve a backlog of nearly 1 million unemployment benefit claims. During the hearing, unemployed workers also voiced their frustration, complaining they have been unable for months to get through clogged phone lines or overcome computer glitches to obtain approval of unemployment benefits.

In Patrick’s words, that hearing at the state Capitol “reflected a new level of despair by those struggling to get benefits,” exacerbated by the supplemental federal unemployment benefit of $600 a week having expired with no clear replacement in sight.

[Read the story: “Lawmakers and jobless workers lash out at California’s unemployment agency” in the Los Angeles Times]

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The latest development came Wednesday, when more than half the members of the California Legislature called on Newsom to immediately begin paying unemployment benefits to many of the more than 1 million jobless workers whose claims have been stalled. The bipartisan group of 61 lawmakers issued a series of requests for immediate action in their letter to Newsom.

EDD spokeswoman Loree Levy told Patrick that the agency is reviewing the letter and will provide a response as soon as possible. A representative for Newsom responded by saying the governor’s office will continue to work with the Legislature on improving EDD operations, but did not address the lawmakers’ call for payments to go out before claims are certified.

In the interim, unemployed Californians urgently searching for answers and troubleshooting tips will continue having to rely on informal networks like the “Unofficial California Unemployment Help” Facebook group, which which was created the same day Newsom issued the stay-at-home order in late March and now has more than 52,000 members.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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A serious breakdown in California systems is still creating inaccurate coronavirus numbers: Some public health officials have resorted to counting results by hand, and a growing number of counties are warning the public that statistics provided by the state on infection rates are unreliable. The accurate collection of test result data is crucial for public health officials in guiding their pandemic response and for projecting likely transmission rates and assisting contact tracing efforts. Inaccurate data could misshape the public’s perception of the state of the pandemic, say experts. Los Angeles Times

Twitter and Facebook take action on COVID-19 misinformation from Trump accounts: Facebook removed a post from President Trump’s page on its social network for violating the company’s policy on coronavirus misinformation. And Twitter briefly blocked Trump’s campaign account, @teamtrump, from posting on its social network for violating its policy with the post. Los Angeles Times

L.A. STORIES

Southeast L.A. already faced many ills. Now it’s the county epicenter for the resurgence of the coronavirus, with infections skyrocketing in its mostly working-class Latino communities. Los Angeles Times

Party houses defying COVID-19 orders may have their utilities shut off: Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that he will be authorizing the city to shut off water and power in cases where residents host large, illegal gatherings. Los Angeles Times

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For some, fishing the L.A. River is more than a quarantine hobby — it’s a form of therapy. (For the record, not a single person interviewed said they would eat a fish out of the river, except Michael Atkins, communications and impact manager with the nonprofit Friends of the L.A. River. “I’m interested to try it, under the right circumstance, but I don’t think anyone would officially advise it,” Atkins said.) Los Angeles Times

Edgar Alvarez fishes in the Los Angeles River
Edgar Alvarez, 23, of Cypress Park, taught himself to fish about four years ago by watching YouTube videos.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The ultimate Los Angeles restaurant delivery and takeout guide: Here are more than 100 restaurants where my colleagues Patricia Escárcega, Jenn Harris, Lucas Kwan Peterson, Garrett Snyder and Bill Addison have savored takeout since the mid-March shutdown. Los Angeles Times

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

Joe Biden will not travel to Milwaukee to accept the Democratic nomination for president at the party convention because of concerns about the coronavirus. Los Angeles Times

Meanwhile, Trump said Wednesday that he’ll probably deliver his Republican convention acceptance speech from the White House. Such a move would mark an unprecedented use of public property for partisan political purposes, and congressional leaders in both parties publicly doubted Trump could go ahead with the plan. Los Angeles Times

In other news, the presidential election is in less than three months, and the Federal Election Commission is unable to meet. For most of the last year the FEC has only had three members, rendering it nearly powerless because four members are required to meet, issue advisory opinions and approve enforcement action. Los Angeles Times

Sacramento City Council to place “strong mayor” measure on November ballot: Sacramento voters will decide in November if the city should overhaul its system of government to make the mayor the most powerful position in California’s capital city, as proposed by Mayor Darrell Steinberg. Sacramento Bee

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CRIME AND COURTS

Assisted by a SWAT team, the FBI served a search warrant at the Calabasas mansion of YouTube influencer Jake Paul. The FBI said the raid was tied to an incident in May in which Paul allegedly was involved in some kind of disturbance at an Arizona shopping mall. Search warrants were also served in Nevada and Arizona. Los Angeles Times

HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Several California school districts are requiring teachers to conduct distance learning from their physical classrooms, sparking new fears as the state contends with the coronavirus. EdSource

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

As private preschools prepare to reopen, California’s poorest kids are stuck at home. “We’re going to have to come up with another word other than gap” for the gulf of educational opportunity separating rich and poor children, said Deborah Bergeron, director of the national Office of Head Start. Los Angeles Times

Oakland’s newest takeout spot doubles as a food hub for Black-owned pop-ups. For diners, it’s a central place to order exciting takeout from rotating pop-ups. For business owners, it’s a way to support each other and try to build wealth within the Black community. San Francisco Chronicle

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The rise of the “resistocrats”: How a generation of wealthy heirs — including Disney scion Abigail Disney — is flocking to the left. Town & Country Magazine

A poem to start your Thursday: “A Little Bit About the Soul” by Wisława Szymborska, translated from the Polish by Joanna Trzeciak. The Atlantic

Free online games

Get our free daily crossword puzzle, sudoku, word search and arcade games in our new game center at latimes.com/games.

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: partly sunny, 76. San Diego: partly sunny, 69. San Francisco: partly sunny, 71. San Jose: partly sunny, 78. Fresno: sunny, 89. Sacramento: partly sunny, 89. More weather is here.

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AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory comes from Rodger Shimatsu:

It was the late 1940s and hot summer weather in the Jefferson-Arlington neighborhood famous for the “Arlington Double.” (The Arlington Double was a natural double-hump in the road a few blocks south of Adams on Arlington where we used to scooter down much like a natural rollercoaster. Rain or shine, it was always exciting and a wild ride for motorists and kids on scooters.) Clop, clop, a horse-drawn cart rolling through the alleys and the driver bellowing “Junk.” Within the hour another another horse-drawn truck hauling ice trailed by several juveniles hoping to chip off a shard of cooling ice. The group was multi-ethnic, but nobody told us we were poor. We were just having fun on summer vacation.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.


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