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Pressure Mounts On California's Unemployment Office As Hundreds Of Thousands Wait For Benefits

A lone pedestrian walks past closed businesses in Hollywood on April 23, 2020. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)
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California lawmakers grilled the director of the state's unemployment office in a hearing on Thursday, saying too many Californians have been unable to access unemployment benefits due to a confusing and unresponsive bureaucracy.

"Because of [the Employment Development Department's] failures, our constituents are depleting their life savings, going into extreme debt, having trouble paying rent and putting food on the table," David Chiu (D-San Francisco) told EDD director Sharon Hilliard.

Unemployed Californians have had trouble applying for benefits online. And when they need help, many can't get through to anyone on the phone. Some have now been waiting months.

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Hilliard said EDD has been swamped, processing an unprecedented 9.3 million claims since the coronavirus pandemic began. For reference, she said EDD processed 3.8 million claims during the worst year of the Great Recession.


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The department reports that close to 890,000 applicants who may be eligible for payments still have not been paid.

Hilliard said most applicants in that group have not completed the steps necessary to certify for benefits, but she said EDD is aware of 239,000 claims still needing department resolution. She said those claims would be completed by September.

Applicants are facing long wait times to get their claims processed. During normal economic times, EDD delivers payments to 80% of applicants within three weeks, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office.

But during the pandemic, only 62% of Californians have been paid within three weeks of applying, compared to the nationwide average of 69%.

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To meet the increased demand, the department has expanded call center hours for technical support to 12 hours per day, seven days a week.

But EDD's core call center -- staffed by 100 caseworkers -- is only open four hours per day on weekday mornings. Applicants on the department's callback list are waiting four to eight weeks to be contacted, on average.

"We realize that the current call center operations are not currently serving all of our customers in a timely manner," Hilliard said. She said the department plans to expand the hours of its core call center, but she did not say when.

This week, the Governor's office announced the formation of a "strike team" to reform EDD. Hilliard said the department will contract out a complete overhaul of the state's outdated technology infrastructure starting in October.

Lawmakers said these actions aren't happening quickly enough for the millions of unemployed Californians who desperately need financial help.

Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach) said, "All of these timelines seem totally out of step with the urgency of the moment we're in."

Meanwhile, Congress is currently negotiating a potential extension of federal unemployment benefits, now that the extra $600 per week provided by the CARES Act has expired.

Democrats want to renew the weekly $600 federal payments, but Republicans are pushing to cap total benefits at 70% of workers' past wages.

Hilliard said making those calculations for each Californian would be challenging, and could take the department up to 20 weeks to program into its computer system.

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