‘It takes 150 redials’: Horror stories from Californians filing unemployment claims, getting no results
Barry Levine has blown through two-thirds of his life savings while waiting for his unemployment insurance claim to be processed. He figures that, by sometime in September, he will have nothing left.
In the 10 weeks since the 52-year-old freelance ad copywriter and occasional actor applied for benefits, he has called the California Employment Development Department “thousands of times,” he said, just to reach a human being.
His application has gone missing in the overburdened state agency, which has processed 7.5 million unemployment claims since the pandemic sent the economy reeling in March — nearly doubling the number filed during the worst full year of the Great Recession.
“It takes 150 redials before I get lucky and get someone on the phone,” he said. “I would try when I had time, half an hour here, an hour there. I’m not getting through, but I see no other way to contact these people, and I’m unemployed. This sort of became my de facto job — trying to get in touch with them to follow up the claim.”
Social media platforms are filled with horror stories about women and men like Levine who’ve been thrown out of work by the coronavirus and are fighting to navigate the EDD. They’ve peppered sites such as Reddit with hacks from the unemployment insurance battlefields on how to use the agency’s seemingly impenetrable phone system. They’ve memorized customer service numbers and can recite chunks of EDD’s recorded messages verbatim.
They’ve sent and re-sent copies of their most important documents — passports, driver’s licenses, W-2 forms, green cards, birth certificates, apartment leases, utility bills — to verify their identities in hopes of speeding the process along. But they’ve often been met with radio silence and left to wonder: “Who was that guy who wouldn’t give me his last name or phone number and I just sent everything to?”
Freelance writer Kevin Smothers tried to reach another human in Sacramento about his unemployment claim. Would he ever get someone on the phone?
Those who have filed unemployment claims in vain say dealing with the EDD feels like life with an emotionally abusive partner: They never know if their actions will be rewarded or punished. They live in constant anxiety and fear. The world is random, treacherous, without logic. A single mistake could mean disaster. And they cannot imagine a way out.
“It takes 150 redials before I get lucky and get someone on the phone. This sort of became my de facto job — trying to get in touch with them to follow up the claim.”
Barry Levine, unemployed freelance copy writer
EDD spokeswoman Loree Levy said a big part of the agency’s problem is “an unprecedented volume of callers dialing in multiple times, which clogs the phone lines.”
In May, EDD reported receiving around 12 million calls a week from up to 645,000 individuals and was able to answer just 20% to 23% of the unique calls each week. In June, the agency recorded 11 million call attempts from 500,000 individuals and was able to answer 27% of the calls with a live service representative.
That month, @CaUnemployed cropped up on Twitter to highlight people’s struggles with the agency; its creator is an unemployed hotel worker named Leah who called EDD 300 times in one day without ever getting through.
Leah doesn’t want her last name used. She fears that it could jeopardize her claim. Fifteen weeks have passed since she filed for benefits. Neither she nor Levine has received a penny from the state. She likes to retweet Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco), who has taken to posting his constituents’ tales of woe under #EDDFailOfTheDay.
“While I understand EDD is dealing with a large number of claims, it is long past time to see some improvement,” Chiu told The Times on Wednesday, arguing for immediate, “transformative” change in the agency. “EDD’s actions have real consequences. People are going into debt and are unable to feed their families because EDD has not resolved these issues.”
Leah’s months-long EDD saga is replete with fax machines in the email era, a letter of response from the beleaguered agency in Spanish (which she doesn’t speak), conflicting answers about her claim status and a cameo appearance by a California legislator.
Leah is 28 years old and lives with her sister in Studio City. She had just started working at a Southern California hotel when the pandemic hit. She was furloughed in late March and filed for unemployment benefits the first week in April. Because she had worked out of state during the last 18 months, she said, she was given the option to either fax or mail her application.
She faxed it in. Waited a couple of weeks. Figured the EDD was overwhelmed. Waited a while longer. Then she started calling. And calling. And calling. And no one ever answered the phone. Three hundred redials in a single day. Crickets. Finally, in mid-May, a woman from the agency called out of the blue and said Leah’s claim had been approved.
But when Leah hung up the phone, her elation fizzled. She’d forgotten to ask for an account number. The customer service rep did not offer it. You cannot access the EDD website without those crucial digits.
So she called and called and called again. When she finally got through, she was told she hadn’t been approved after all. A while later, the letter in Spanish arrived. She used Google Translate to decipher the document. It included her account number. But she still could not log on.
So what did she do? Started calling yet again.
“I finally get in touch with someone,” Leah recounted. “They say I’ll get a call back from a supervisor in one to seven days. That never happened. I called back. I was told that four to five times. Nobody ever called me. Ever. “
Eventually she was able to sign on. But “everything said zero.” Meaning no money to help her pay the bills. EDD needed to verify her identity. She mailed in her documents again. Then the agency needed to confirm her out-of-state wages. Even though she’d already submitted that information, too.
“I was told by someone last week not to expect anything for four to six weeks,” she said Tuesday. “That will put us in August. Throughout all of this, I just became more and more frustrated and upset. My sister lost her job at the same time. She was able to get unemployment easily. I don’t know why. We’ve been living on one person’s unemployment.”
And having hard conversations about maybe moving back home to live with their parents in Georgia. But on Wednesday, Leah got some good news, the first in a while. She’d emailed her state assemblyman, Adrin Nazarian (D-North Hollywood), asking for help. “I got a call from EDD today because my assembly rep had my claim escalated!!” she posted on @CaUnemployed.
On Thursday, her EDD account finally showed a balance, although she was still not able to access the money.
“I know how everyone feels. They feel like they’ve been left behind,” Leah said. “You shouldn’t have to fight so hard. … I understand the system is overwhelmed. I totally get that. But that’s not a good enough excuse at this point when this many people are this desperate.”
Lawmakers throughout the state have been intervening to help their constituents. State Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa) said his office has so far been able to get EDD to resolve 150 of some 600 cases where people were unable to get claims approved on their own.
Moorlach said he believes antiquated computers are holding up the processing of many complaints. Callers have told his staff that EDD service representatives sometimes say they cannot access automated files. The technology problems extend to the agency’s call centers.
For years, the call center has operated from 8 a.m. until noon. After the pandemic began, callers complained about the limited hours, so a second call center operating from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. was set up. But many of the agency’s service representatives cannot help resolve specific problems with people’s claims. Callers complain they’ve repeatedly gotten recorded messages saying the system is overwhelmed.
And then they’re disconnected.
Veronica Davidson, who works in television production, has been trying to get unemployment benefits for the last 13 weeks. Any story about the EDD’s disastrous customer service, she said, has to note the “complete contradiction” unemployed workers hear when they call.
“As you know, the first sentence is ‘Hello, at this time our representatives are here to assist you,’ ” she said. “The next sentence is, ‘We are experiencing a high volume of calls, try your call later.’ Then when you call later, it says, ‘Our business hours are 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.’”
The 64-year-old Redondo Beach resident sent flowers to the rare EDD service rep who actually helped her.
She has called EDD 10 times a week for the last three months.
Finally, on Friday, the first unemployment money arrived in the mail, Davidson said — a fraction of what she is owed.
“It’s a good start,” she said, “but where’s the back pay?”
Gov. Gavin Newsom was asked at a news conference Thursday what he would say to jobless Californians who are struggling to make ends meet because they have been unable to get unemployment benefits to which they are entitled.
Newsom said the state faces a “historic backlog” of claims, but he noted that thousands of state employees have been retrained and transferred to help EDD with the deluge of claims, and he said more than $3.5 billion in benefits has been paid out in just the last week.
“It’s $3.5 billion, but it’s not enough. We’ve got to do more. We’ve got to do better,” Newsom said. “We own the experience. We own the resolve to focus in, learn lessons and fix things as we work through this surge.”
That’s cold comfort for Polina Izotova, who worked at the front desk of a Santa Monica hotel until guests stopped arriving and the staff was furloughed. She has been waiting for her claim to be approved for nearly four months. She can afford to keep her apartment — but not to live in it. She moved back to Houston and is staying with family. She has called EDD more than 1,000 times.
It doesn’t help Dorian, who lives in Long Beach and hasn’t worked translating video game text into Spanish since March 16. He asked that his last name not be used because he doesn’t want to jeopardize future employment. He applied for unemployment insurance, got two weeks of payments, then was told he had to verify his identity. He figures he has called EDD 500 times. He’s going for a teaching credential, is living off student loans and applied to CalFresh so that he can feed his 13-year-old son.
And Barry Levine? He’s still waiting. He is grateful that the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program was expanded to include gig workers and freelancers like him. But the system for delivering unemployment benefits in California, he said, must be fixed.
If it isn’t, Levine said, “I have to imagine that thousands of additional people in California are going to go hungry and join the already catastrophic homeless crisis, and many may even die, making the worst possible versions of this pandemic a grim reality.”
Get breaking news, investigations, analysis and more signature journalism from the Los Angeles Times in your inbox.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.