SAN FRANCISCO - California's unemployment office is under fire as it struggles to distribute economic relief to millions of state residents who've lost their jobs.
Assemblymember David Chiu and state Senator Scott Wiener, both Democrats from San Francisco, set their sights on the Employment Development Department on Thursday in a Zoom meeting where select residents shared their frustrations with accessing unemployment benefits.
With more than 3 million Californians out of work, according to the Economic Policy Institute, Chiu said his office has been flooded with an "unprecedented number" of complaints about interactions with the EDD. Wiener echoed this sentiment, and said that his district staff have been spending the “bulk of their time” helping people get benefits.
Applications for benefits get stuck in limbo for weeks, EDD phone representatives hang up on callers, state-issued debit cards don't arrive in the mail and the agency's website is riddled with problems, the lawmakers said.
“The EDD is truly failing our state,” Chiu said. “People are suffering tremendously."
Representatives from the EDD did not attend the Zoom meeting.
KTVU has been reporting on systemic problems with the EDD’s unemployment benefits since April, and found that many applicants are ultimately unable to reach the EDD when they have an urgent issue, and many others are unable to access any benefits at all. Whether they have been misclassified as an employee, can’t use their Bank of America card, or are subject to penalty weeks, all applicants interviewed described being unable to reach the EDD in a timely fashion.
Chiu said that despite an increase in EDD staffing, he believes that many EDD staff are not well-trained. The staff often hang up on callers, or place callers on a call-back list to no avail. He said his office estimates that 20 percent of people applying for unemployment have been unable to get a response to a query within a few weeks.
“The training needs to be such that people can actually answer questions on the phone,” Wiener said. “Even the website is not nearly user friendly. And there should be much more good automation within the website, so that people can get information about their application, so forth, without having to call 500 times to try to get an answer.”
Chiu said that the EDD’s antiquated technology and website poses a slew of problems, and that with only 15 staff programmers, the department needs to place much more effort into overhauling the current site. He also pointed to the EDD’s hiring of Deloitte as a consultant as a mistake, stating that he does not think their work of the past four years has been helpful.
Wiener and Chiu both criticized the EDD’s recently announced one-case limit for expedited review by agencies. The announcement means that out of the thousands of complaints each of their offices receives,each office can only promote a single case to the EDD per week for additional review.
“Our office, along with every other legislative office in the state, was told that we could only ask for one case per week from our office to be expedited for review,” Chiu said.
Wiener said even his staff sometimes do not even get responses from the EDD after attempting to communicate regarding applicants’ cases. After four months, he is no longer giving EDD the benefit of the doubt, he said.
“Folks have wondered, well, of course the system might break down during this time period,” Chiu said. “I want to point out that, a decade ago during the Great Recession, the EDD system broke down then. They promised to fix it. They had a decade to plan for this very moment.”
Chiu said that the first thing he’s asking of the EDD is a plan to reduce response time for questions.
Taylor Whitehouse, who applied for unemployment in March, lamented a “lack of clarity” about why she cannot access her benefits, which have been “pending” for months after one initial payment of $155.
“I’ve been paying taxes my entire life, a good upstanding citizen, and I don’t understand why I can’t access these benefits,” Whitehouse said.
Chiu also said that applicants who are not native English speakers face additional challenges.
Wiener said that other than the containment of the virus, getting people benefits to which they’re legally entitled should be the state’s priority, and that it is “completely unacceptable” that many people are currently without funds they need to survive.
He said that people asking for help with their unemployment are not seeking “concierge” service or special treatment, but are just people who need help immediately to put food on the table and pay their rent.
In a response to a question about the efficacy and necessity of an EDD audit, Wiener said that “an audit doesn’t help us right now.” He said that even if they requested one today, it wouldn’t be done until later this year.
“I don’t want to divert them to having to deal with an audit,” he said. Rather, he said he needs the EDD to focus “every ounce of their energy” on getting people the money they need.
Chiu said that the leadership of EDD has, for the past ten years, been “very good at making excuses”, instead of changing infrastructure, particularly with the website.
Wiener said that he wants people who are struggling with unemployment to reach out to his office, as they are “there to help.”