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'EDD Is Failing California.' Residents Fight Financial Distress As Unemployment Agency Troubles Continue

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(Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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It's been nearly a year since Californians began losing work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For help, those unfortunate workers have turned to the state's unemployment department -- but they've often been shut out.

Delayed payments, surprise suspensions and clogged phone lines have left many unemployed Californians in severe financial distress. State lawmakers are calling for sweeping reforms, and policy experts are urging more equitable distribution of benefits.

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Meanwhile, applicants struggle to make ends meet as they wait for their claims to be fixed.

'IT FEELS LIKE THE HUNGER GAMES'

Asia Vargas is a behavioral therapist and single mom who lives in Orange County with her six-year-old son. Typically, her work involves helping kids on the autism spectrum at their family homes. But when COVID struck, it wasn't safe to do that work anymore.

"I haven't been working with any kiddos since March," Vargas said.

So, Vargas did what millions of other Californians have done during the pandemic. She applied for unemployment benefits through the state's Employment Development Department (EDD).

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But nearly a year later, she hasn't received a dime. For months, she tried calling and emailing the department on a daily basis, but never got through.

"It feels like The Hunger Games," Vargas said, quoting the dystopian novel's famous line: "May the odds be ever in your favor." (A recent audit found that early in the pandemic, the odds of getting through to EDD's call center were less than 1-in-100.)

"It's just like, Well, let's keep these people waiting. Call this number, call that number, knowing that you're just going to be in a circle and end up nowhere," Vargas said. "You're just praying to God that somebody listens to you. But out of millions of people, you know you're just a number."

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Asia Vargas has been supporting her son during the pandemic, despite job loss and barriers to accessing unemployment benefits. (COURTESY: Asia Vargas)

It turns out there was an issue with the start date of her claim. But Vargas said EDD never made her aware of the problem, let alone how to fix it. The state agency told her it did mail her an explanation, but she says she never received the missive.

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Without money coming in, Vargas saw her finances unravel. She has fallen far behind on the rent for her apartment in Costa Mesa. So far, she's been able to stay, thanks to renter protections passed during the pandemic. But she and her son have still been threatened with eviction.

"It's just kind of like a ticking clock, and you're trying to do all that you can to keep a roof over your head," Vargas said. "The only reason why I'm in debt is because I haven't received any type of funding from EDD."

STATE LAWMAKERS FLOODED WITH PLEAS FOR HELP

After months without aid from EDD, Vargas took a low-paying job as a delivery driver. She uses the revenue to help pay for childcare so her son can participate in remote kindergarten. She's still seeking retroactive unemployment benefits that could amount to tens of thousands of dollars.

Desperate for help, in September she reached out to her state representative, Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris. Her office was able to get an EDD representative to address problems with Vargas' claim, but the case still isn't resolved.

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Petrie-Norris said constituents have been contacting lawmakers' offices about unemployment problems far more than any other issue.

"Every day, we hear from literally thousands of desperate Californians who are in dire straits," Petrie-Norris said. "They're not sure how they're going to pay their bills, make their rent or feed their kids. It's heartbreaking."

Lawmakers have proposed a wave of reforms for EDD, including requirements to provide services in recipients' preferred languages, and the creation of an Office of the Claimant Advocate.

Petrie-Norris said these changes could help prevent future catastrophes, but the agency needs to make itself more accessible to those facing immediate financial ruin.

"The bottom line is that EDD is failing California," she said.

In response to LAist's reporting, an EDD spokesperson sent an emailed statement saying:

The priorities for EDD are keeping benefits out of the hands of criminals and get them into the hands of eligible Californians as quickly as possible, modernizing EDD systems to expedite claims, and improving the EDD customer experience.

EDD officials say they've been helping applicants who are stuck in limbo. They say the agency has now resolved all of the 1.6 million backlogged claims outlined in a September report from the Governor's EDD strike team. The department is planning to expand services for those with limited English proficiency, and has hired the fraud consulting service Accenture in an effort to crack down on claims from criminals.

"With more advanced tools, processes, and partnerships in place at the federal, state and local level, the EDD is well positioned to proceed in 2021 to protect unemployment benefit programs and better serve Californians truly in need," the EDD spokesperson said.

UNEMPLOYMENT BARRIERS LEAVE BILLIONS OF DOLLARS IN RELIEF UNTAPPED

Recent months have brought new leadership to EDD amid a barrage of reports and audits that found widespread benefit delays for legitimate applicants at the same time the department paid at least $11.4 billion in fraudulent claims.

Getting shut out of the system is a common experience across the state -- but some communities face more barriers than others.

Low-income, non-white workers have been more likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic. And they often lack the robust savings needed to survive months without income or aid. But the state's unemployment system has left many to fend for themselves.

A recent study from the California Policy Lab found that workers in lower income neighborhoods are much less likely to get benefits than those in wealthier parts of the state.

The researchers estimated that if workers in poorer areas had been able to obtain benefits at the same rate as those in wealthier areas, the unemployment insurance rolls in California would be 23% higher.

"Increasing access to benefits to vulnerable communities is not only good for the individuals in those communities and the community as a whole, but also for the entire state," said UCLA economist Till von Wachter, one of the study's authors.

Experts say these disparities could be driven by language barriers, technological divides, lack of awareness and ineligibility due to immigration status.

Whatever is causing these gaps, California's uneven safety net has cost the state billions of dollars in potential relief. Researchers estimate that a more equitable distribution of unemployment benefits would have put $445 million more into the hands of struggling workers every week this past summer.

"California is actually leaving a lot of money on the table," von Wachter said.

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A staffer works to process claims at California's unemployment office, March 30, 2020. (California Employment Development Department)

CHILDREN STEP IN TO HELP PARENTS NAVIGATE THE EDD LABYRINTH

Daisy Perez has kept her job throughout the pandemic, but her parents haven't been as lucky. Her 68-year-old mother is a childcare provider in El Sereno who lost clients when parents began working from home and pulling their kids out of daycare.

"I've been navigating the EDD for my mother's unemployment claim," Perez said. "She's not so tech savvy. So I jump in and help her whenever I can. That included initiating the claim, which started last year in May."

Perez still hasn't been able to secure benefits for her mother. Like others, she's run into problems with the start date for her mother's claim.

But when Perez tried to ask EDD about the issue, she says she's been stonewalled by the department's call center. A bureaucratic error on her mother's birth year prevented Perez from creating an online account.

Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo's office has elevated these problems within EDD, but Perez said her mother's benefits are still pending. Nearly a year into the pandemic, she said the lack of assistance from EDD leaves her feeling "frustrated, disheartened."

"It just really feels like we're losing time," Perez said. "This is an easily resolved issue that just can't seem to get resolved."

Perez said her mother has lost faith in the system. For now, she and her sister have been helping by buying their parents' groceries.

"It's definitely been a little strange for us to have to step in," she said. "It's not something that we usually do, but we do it gladly."

1 MILLION CLAIMS COULD BE IN DANGER OF DISQUALIFICATION

At a time when California's jobs recovery is shaky at best, EDD has been cutting benefits to more people.

The agency suspended 1.4 million claims over the holidays without warning. About 400,000 accounts have been restored after claimants completed steps to verify their identities through the third-party website ID.me. But around one million other claims could still be in danger of disqualification.

An audit last month warned that 20% of legitimate claimants who tried to complete the ID.me process were unable to validate their identities.

The agency says another batch of claimants who lost benefits by the end of December -- an estimated 185,000 Californians -- will have to wait more than two months without payments while EDD gears up for a March 7 restart.

As for Asia Vargas -- the single mom in Costa Mesa who has spent nearly a year seeking benefits -- she filed paperwork to appeal her claim in November. Recently, she's been told EDD never received it. She's planning to mail in another appeal.

"You just feel like this is a system that is set up to only help you fail," said Vargas, "and not to help you in times of need."