(TNS) — Facing a flood of complaints from jobless Californians who have been unable to obtain unemployment benefits, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday he has formed a "strike team" to address issues with the system and will streamline the process for resolving claims.
The announcement came on the eve of a legislative hearing on problems in the unemployment insurance program at which department officials are expected to be grilled over complaints of computer glitches and clogged phone lines that are preventing claims from being filed.
"There should be no barriers between Californians and the benefits they have earned," Newsom said in a statement. "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 [Employment Development] Department in that direction."
The new strike team will be headed by Government Operations Agency Secretary Yolanda Richardson and Jennifer Pahlka, the founder of open-government group Code for America.
The team will draft a plan in 45 days for improvements at the state Employment Development Department, including an overhaul of its inefficient technology systems, Newsom said.
California has processed an unprecedented 8.7 million claims for unemployment benefits since March, when Newsom ordered Californians to stay at home to reduce the spread of COVID-19. That order shut down much of the state's economy, putting millions out of work.
But many people who lost jobs or income say they have been unable to get the benefits for which they are eligible. They said the EDD's clogged phone lines have prevented them from reaching a live service representative who can help them resolve problems with claims.
Others complain that the EDD's old and inadequate computer system has prevented them from completing claims online.
The governor said Wednesday that the new efforts will focus efforts on nearly 1 million unpaid claims that may be eligible for payment but require more information. Many claims are "pending resolution" because they have issues to resolve including verification of the identity of the filer. Newsom said he hopes to eliminate the backlog by the end of September.
Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Frenso), a leading critic of the EDD, was skeptical of the governor's announcement.
"Governor Newsom has become notorious for his words — not his actions," Patterson said in a statement in response to the announcement. "It's our responsibility in the Legislature to not only hold the EDD accountable, but the Governor as well."
The EDD has fallen behind as more claims have been filed, according to a report by agency Director Sharon Hilliard that was released Wednesday.
In March, 87.8 percent of claims saw initial payments within 14 calendar days, but by June the number had dropped to 51.9 percent, according to the report.
The state will prioritize the oldest claims first and is developing a more "user-friendly" process for notifying and communicating with customers, including updated interactive voice response automation that will route each caller to a representative who has specialized training with that specific issue.
California Labor Secretary Julie Su said her goal is to create a "human-centered system" that people can use during difficult times.
"From the first contact to final resolution and all communication in between, we are committed to making the [unemployment insurance] experience better for Californians," Su said.
Administration officials are expect to convey the same message to frustrated and angry state lawmakers on Thursday, as an Assembly budget subcommittee on state administration convenes an oversight hearing on the agency.
Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco) is among those scheduled to attend the hearing. He said he is glad the governor is working to address some of the issues raised but said the plan outlined "only scratches the surface of the disaster that is EDD."
"Despite months of good-faith efforts to work constructively with EDD leadership to solve the myriad of problems plaguing the agency, little to no progress has been made," Chiu said. "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."
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