[Updated] State Sen. Anthony Portantino, who represents Pasadena in the California legislature, led a chorus of his colleagues in Sacramento who followed his demands that the governor take immediate action to get backlogged unemployment claims paid and improve communication between the state’s Employment Development Department and those who are out of work.
Complaints of unpaid claims, inability to contact EDD representatives and a host of other problems have been piling up for months, along with unemployment claims, as the COVID-19 pandemic helped drive California’s unemployment rate to a record 15.5% in April.
The senator wrote on July 28 to Gov. Gavin Newsom and California Labor and Workforce Development Agency Secretary Julie Su “to convey his strong concerns regarding the department’s handling of claims for Unemployment and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance,” Portantino’s office said in a written statement.
“Too many Californians are mired in bureaucratic red tape and not getting the benefits they deserve,” Portantino said. “We must do everything we can to bring financial relief to our neighbors who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic. I asked my team to compile the most prevalent issues facing our constituents and formally requested that EDD address them.”
A bipartisan group of 61 state lawmakers sent a letter to the governor earlier this week making similar demands, the Los Angeles Times reported. The letter relayed the come constituents had reported being hung up on by EDD staff, and that five months into the pandemic, some had yet to receive a single unemployment payment.
“Millions of our constituents have had no income for months. As Californians wait for answers from EDD, they have depleted their life savings, have gone into extreme debt, and are in deep panic as they figure out how to put food on the table and a roof over their heads,” according to the letter.
Portantino outlined nine specific areas where he said improvement at the EDD was sorely needed:
• The lengthy ID verification process, where claimants receive no communication from EDD staff
• Correspondence with EDD is not consistent and at times directly conflicts with prior correspondences
• Automatic responses saying that messages will be responded to within 7-10 days but are not followed up on
• Confusing temporary SSNs sent in the mail with no explanation
• The significant amount of applications submitted by mail or fax that never are entered into the system
• A number of constituents have been told by tech support that they are being put on a call back list but never hear back from EDD
• The inconsistent messaging from EDD about how claimants can backdate claims
• ID verification challenges for immigrants and those with name changes
• False penalty issues and confusion over how to receive retroactive CARES payments once the issues are solved
Newsom announced late last month that he was forming a ”Strike team” to look into the issues at the EDD.
It is to be headed by Government Operations Agency Secretary Yolanda Richardson and Jennifer Pahlka, who co-founded the United States Digital Response, the United States Digital Service, and founded the Code for America, the governor’s office said in a written statement.
“(It) will create a blueprint for improvements at EDD, including a reimagining of their technology systems,” the statement said. “Further, EDD will begin addressing the backlog of unpaid claims by streamlining communications with consumers.”
Newsom agreed that the current system was not working well enough for out-of-work Californians.
“There should be no barriers between Californians and the benefits they have earned,” he said. “Unprecedented demand due to job loss during this pandemic paired with an antiquated system have created an unacceptable backlog of claims. Californians deserve better, and these reform efforts aim to move the Department in that direction.”
Unemployment payments distributed to Californians since the onset of the pandemic reached $59.8 billion as of Thursday, according to the EDD.
“Over the same timeframe, the Employment Development Department has processed more than 9.7 million claims for benefits between the regular Unemployment Insurance program, extensions, and separate Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program,” the agency said in a written statement.
“Just last week, the EDD paid an average of $792 million a day in unemployment benefits,” the statement said. “That amount is a 1,033% increase over the $70 million in average daily benefits paid during a similar week at the height of the Great Recession.”