State lawmakers rebuked the state’s Employment Development Department on Thursday, charging that it has failed to address public outcry over delays in answering calls and processing unemployment benefit claims from Californians thrown out of work by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Legislators grilled EDD Director Sharon Hilliard at a budget subcommittee hearing on the agency’s handling of an unprecedented 5.1 million claims for unemployment insurance benefits, voicing frustration that many Californians have not been able to get help in a timely way.
“We have never heard the kind of suffering that people are experiencing right now,” Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco) told Hilliard. “When they call your bureaucracy, the feedback we are getting is atrocious, and I believe we can do better.”
Assemblyman Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale) said his constituents complain that when they call the EDD for help with claims, they often get a recorded message or the state phone system hangs up on them.
“The desperation, the frustration is extreme,” Lackey told Hilliard. “Even with some of the live calls [answered by representatives] we get hangups. That is really unacceptable.”
Other unemployed Californians have complained that their attempts to file applications at the EDD’s online portal were greeted with error messages, frozen screens and other glitches.
“We are two months in from the start of this pandemic, and still too many Californians can’t even reach EDD or have yet to receive unemployment benefits,” Assemblyman Todd Gloria (D-San Diego) said.
Hilliard said a lack of staff and the agency’s antiquated computer system have hampered efforts to answer a flood of phone calls from jobless people and process their claims. She said the agency is weeks away from additional improvements, including an expansion of a phone line that currently helps people with claims from 8 a.m. to noon every day.
The agency has transferred 1,300 employees to work at the EDD’s call centers, and another 600 are expected to be added in the next two weeks. Gov. Gavin Newsom has also proposed more money for staffing in the fiscal year starting July 1.
“We believe that with the additional funding that is coming next fiscal year that we will have plenty of budget in order to continue to quickly ramp up our services both in the call center, as well as with processing,” Hilliard told the legislators.
The state opened a second call center that operates from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. but lawmakers said representatives can handle only technical issues, such as changing passwords, and are unable to help callers resolve problems with specific claims.
Hilliard said some callers to the second call center can get claims assistance and noted her agency is looking at the possibility of merging the two call centers so people can get help with claims 12 hours a day.
The agency was in the process of modernizing its computer system when the pandemic hit and hopes to award a major contract in the fall to do much of the work, Hilliard said.
“We have a very inflexible system. It’s very challenging,” Hilliard said.
But Chiu complained that the modernization of EDD’s 30-year-old computer system began four years ago and is expected to take seven more years, which he said is too long and will likely make it obsolete by the time it is finished.
“The idea that a modernization project is going to take 11 years is completely unacceptable,” Chiu said.