California lawmakers lashed out Thursday at a state plan that would take two months to resolve a backlog of nearly 1 million unemployment benefit claims, warning at a legislative hearing that many jobless people are struggling to pay for food and rent.
Workers left unemployed by the COVID-19 pandemic also voiced frustration during an hours-long hearing of an Assembly budget subcommittee on state administration, complaining they have been unable for months to get through clogged phone lines or overcome computer glitches to obtain approval of unemployment benefits.
With the supplemental federal unemployment benefit of $600 a week having expired Saturday, the hearing at the state Capitol reflected a new level of despair by those struggling to get benefits from the state Employment Development Department.
“Because of EDD’s failures, our constituents are depleting their life savings, going into extreme debt and having trouble paying rent and putting food on the table,” said Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco), who clashed with the head of the state employment agency and said “fundamental reform” is needed.
Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove), the panel’s chairman, criticized how long the state is taking to get to claims.
“It’s tragic, it’s unconscionable what is happening to these people, and now we are hearing that we are still two months behind,” Cooper said, adding that people are suffering “because we can’t get our act together.”
Other lawmakers, including Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach), told of constituents who filed for unemployment benefits months ago but have not heard back from the EDD or received any benefits.
“EDD is failing California,” Petrie-Norris said. She said the desperation of unemployed Californians is being met by a “disinterested bureaucracy” that fails to answer the phone or return emails, and she called the current situation “heart-wrenching.”
“It is maddening and it is totally unacceptable,” she said.
Testifying by phone, EDD Director Sharon Hilliard said plans are in the works to improve the state’s system and added that the agency “sincerely regrets any payment delays experienced by our customers.”
Hilliard acknowledged that complex new formulas being considered by Congress to extend supplemental unemployment benefits could require up to 20 weeks of programming to allow the state’s computer system to make payments.
Assemblyman Jay Obernolte (R-Big Bear Lake) warned that such delays would cause “outrage” by the public and urged Hilliard to find a quicker solution.
The hearing was held a day after Gov. Gavin Newsom disclosed that nearly 1 million unpaid claims may be eligible for payment but require more information, including identity verification.
Hilliard said the EDD has the information needed to approve 239,000 of the claims, but the rest require claimants to provide additional information.
The governor said he has ordered the EDD to focus on resolving those claims with hopes of eliminating the backlog by the end of September.
That timetable is drawing criticism from state lawmakers who note that some unemployed Californians have gone without income for months because they have been unable to get claims approved.
“Waiting until late September to clear the backlog of unfulfilled claims and to devise a blueprint for web improvements feels inadequate given the number of people left without income since March,” Chiu said.
He accused Hilliard of lying to the public for months about the scope of the problem. She denied that she has misrepresented how many people have gone without payments.
The lawmakers heard more than an hour of testimony from unemployed Californians — some in tears and others whose voices broke with emotion — who told of calling the EDD hundreds of times and being unable to get help to resolve their problems.
“I have heart palpitations when thinking of the emotional trauma I have endured at the hands of the dysfunction of EDD,” said one caller, who identified herself as Jennifer. She said she waited on hold for six hours one day only to have an EDD representative hang up on her after saying she could not answer her questions.
Joanne D’Antonio of Valley Glen said she had been receiving unemployment insurance payments before she missed an email from the EDD that required a response for her to stay certified. That caused her to miss six weeks of benefits totaling more than $5,300. “Is there a way the Assembly can help?” she asked.
A caller who identified herself as Kelly from the San Diego area said she filed a claim in May but has not received any benefits.
“The EDD experience has been nothing but abominable,” she said.
On Wednesday, Newsom announced that he has created a “strike team” to draft a plan in 45 days for improvements at the EDD, including an overhaul of its inefficient technology systems.
The COVID-19 pandemic has left millions without jobs as the governor’s March order for residents to stay at home forced many businesses to close or scale back operations.
On Thursday, the EDD said it has 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.
Lawmakers have expressed concerns over a call center that operates from 8 a.m. to noon to resolve problems for claim filers and is staffed by only 100 of the EDD’s more than 7,500 employees. Hilliard said that a new, second phone line has 1,100 workers assigned to it with 700 more on the way.
She told legislators at the hearing that her agency is merging its two call centers to better serve customers and plans to adopt a new routing system to send calls to specialized agents in mid-October. There is currently a four- to six-week wait time for EDD workers to call back customers with problems, she said.
“We realize that the current call center operations are not currently serving all of our customers in a timely manner,” Hilliard said.
She also said a contract to replace the “obsolete” technology at the agency is scheduled to be awarded in October.
Lawmakers voiced dissatisfaction with Hilliard’s plans.
“My concern is that all of these timelines just seem totally out of step with the urgency we are in,” Petrie-Norris told the director.
Newsom’s strike team will develop short- and long-term plans for overhauling the technology so it works better, the governor said.
“There should be no barriers between Californians and the benefits they have earned,” Newsom said in a statement Wednesday.