Unemployment office issues not new
Sammy Morrill waited 15 weeks for his unemployment insurance to come in, faithfully filling out forms every two weeks and calling the state Economic Development Department daily.
On Monday the Nevada City resident finally got a check with backlogged payments, only to find it was thousands of dollars less than anticipated. Because his initial claim was less than $100 per week, he became ineligible for the extra $300 per week he was counting on through the state’s Lost Wages Assistance Program.
“I live with my mom at the moment and it’s rough because she’s like, ’Where’s rent?’ and all I could say is, ”I’m still waiting,’” Morrill said. “If I had bills that were 100% necessary to pay on time, I’d be screwed right now.”
In the last two months Morrill said he’s given the unemployment office thousands of calls, only getting through a handful of times. He estimates if the lines were full when he called, it would take just under five minutes to get through all the automated messages. He’d then reach a prerecorded message telling him all lines were busy before the system ended the call.
Morrill’s experience is far from unique.
According to a state audit released last month, the Economic Development Department answered less than 1% of total calls per week last April, when shutdown orders from the coronavirus pandemic hit critical mass and calls to the unemployment office spiked to 1.7 million per week from 120,000 per week the previous month.
“The claim surge exacerbated EDD’s struggles at answering calls to the point at which the call center effectively stopped providing service to almost all callers,” the audit stated.
In that month, the average caller each attempted to reach the unemployment office 10 times.
“I had a ’I want this to work’ type of mindset, like I need this to work,” Morrill said of his persistent calls. “Obviously, it wasn’t really worth it for just 60 bucks every week.”
Between March and October more than 400,000 questions for the unemployment department were left unanswered in two categories residents could select to alert staff about mistakes made on their application.
In November, the department deleted these unanswered messages, claiming they were likely no longer pertinent, and that staff time could be better spent on other work related to paying out claims.
According to the audit, the move, “highlights the degree to which it left hundreds of thousands of claimants without answers during uncertain times.”
Morrill said he was finally able to get his payment issue resolved after talking to a “Tier 2” agent last week.
In response to the surge of calls, the EDD quadrupled its call center staff to over 5,600 workers. However, because the department’s training typically takes up to 13 months to complete, it wasn’t feasible to expect the new staff to be able to help callers right away.
Instead, the department assigned these new hires and recent transfers as “Tier 1” agents, who were only trained to give technical assistance and take down numbers for more experienced Tier 2 agents to handle later.
According to the audit, many of the issues now plaguing the EDD were outlined in a March 2011 audit, which warned the department about the need to plan for recessions in light of increased claims after the Great Recession.
“We’re not saying it would have fixed everything,” State Auditor Elaine Howle told a joint subcommittee hearing of the state Senate this month. “But the difficulties that Californians have been facing this last year wouldn’t have been as severe.”
The audit points out the department was struggling even before the pandemic, particularly with its call center which lacked basic data intake like why people were calling or if their questions were answered on the first call.
Before any shutdown order or increase in call volume last January, the call center failed to answer 57% of all calls per week.
The audit further warns that because the department dropped some eligibility requirements in order to speed up processing, some claimants may have been overpaid, and could have to pay back money to the state.
The loosening of eligibility criteria has led to massive amounts fraud — $11 billion through January, according to the EDD.
According to the audit, 1.7 million Californians may have to pay back benefits received in the first half of 2020 through no fault of their own.
“We have people who are talking about taking their lives, they’re so distraught,” said state Sen. Brian Dahle, whose district includes Nevada County, in the hearing. “This is the most unbearable situation as a legislator I’ve ever been in trying to help out constituents.”
To contact Staff Writer John Orona, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4229.
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