(TNS) — Nearly 2 million unemployment claims filed in the state over the first three months of the government-ordered business lockdowns have yet to be paid, an analysis of federal government statistics shows.
The brutal backlog is further evidence of the troubles plaguing the embattled state Employment Development Department (EDD), prompting the newly jobless to complain of an overwhelmed phone system and antiquated technology. The first-time claims have gone unfilled even as Gov. Gavin Newsom has promised reforms and increased staffing for the EDD.
“I have done just about everything I know how to do as a public official to make things work, but my colleagues, my staff, my constituents and I are at our wits’ end,” Assemblymember David Chiu, D-San Francisco, said in a tweet.
The backlog of unpaid jobless claims has infuriated a growing number of jobless workers starting in March. “I know people who are on hold every day and can’t get a response,” said Armand Domalewski, a San Francisco resident and workforce development expert who has set up an employment-oriented Facebook page that also helps people find solutions to EDD woes.
The mounting claims arrive at a time when some county and state government agencies are again moving to shut down an array of business activities as fears escalate that the coronavirus outbreak might intensify — a collective decision that could cause additional workers to lose their jobs.
“I’m terribly disappointed. The EDD has let us down terribly,” said Rhonda Dias, a San Jose resident and a daycare teacher. Dias was temporarily laid off and later returned to her job, but at reduced hours. “The website doesn’t work and you can’t get through on the phone. “People have to pay their taxes. Then they can’t help us.”
Over the three months of March, April, and May, 5.01 million California workers filed initial claims for unemployment benefits and the EDD completed first-time payments to just 3.13 million workers, statistics compiled by the U.S. Labor Department show.
That points to a grim gap between the initial claims and the first-time payments, leaving1.88 million claims unfilled and suggesting a mammoth backlog of workers who have yet to receive any benefits despite being out of work for weeks or months.
“You can’t get a clear answer from anybody with the EDD,” said Laurie Nelson, a Union City resident who lost her job in March as a fundraiser for a foundation. “You go week after week trying to certify your claim and get some sort of unemployment payment. If I hadn’t gotten loans from family members, I would be out on the street. I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent.” Nelson hopes an EDD judge will force the agency to issue her benefits.
And the backlog has grown steadily since the business shutdowns began and more workers have filed for benefits.
After the first month of government-ordered closures, the backlog of unpaid workers was already huge: 1.44 million in March. For March and April combined, the backlog totaled 1.75 million. And now, after the first three months shutdowns, the backlog of unpaid workers is approaching 2 million. During the one-month period that ended on June 27, 1.06 million California workers filed initial unemployment claims.
“These numbers show what we have suspected all along: EDD is utterly failing millions of Californians,” Chiu said. “EDD’s failure has real human consequences. Californians have depleted their life savings, gone into severe debt, and been unable to feed their families because of bureaucratic incompetence.”
To be sure, the labor agency has steadily increased the percentage of first-time payments to people who have filed unemployment claims over the first three months of coronavirus-linked business shutdowns, the federal Labor Department figures show.
“We continue to work around the clock, seven days a week to expand our capacity for processing this unprecedented demand for unemployment benefits as quickly as possible,” EDD spokesperson Barry White said.
EDD officials said steps are being taken swiftly.
“We are enhancing our technology systems to increase efficiencies, and have already hired or have offers extended to more than 4,000 new staff needed as part of an expedited mass hiring effort with the increased federal funding we’ve received,” White said.
The EDD also promised to move older claims from March and April to the top of the priority list, based on information provided by state lawmakers, according to Chiu and other state legislators. But the timetable for processing that part of the backlog wasn’t clear.
During March, April, and May, the EDD’s first-time benefit payments to unemployed workers amounted to 62.4 percent of the jobless claims filed in the first three months of business shutdowns. But that also means about 38 percent of those workers didn’t receive their first payments.
Unemployed workers continue to encounter phone loops that lead to recorded messages but no live attendants, an EDD computer site that’s hobbled by glitches, and a lack of information about the status of their jobless claims.
Chiu said that he has provided the EDD with extensive feedback, sent suggestions to the EDD director regarding solutions to systemic problems, addressed the EDD’s benefit payment woes in a public hearing, met with the EDD’s contractor, and lambasted the EDD in a television appearance.
“We have all had to adapt our lives to COVID-19,” Chiu said. “While I recognize EDD is dealing with a large number of claims, it’s long past time for EDD to adapt to this new reality. We must see improvement, and this agency needs to see transformative change in the coming months.”
EDD improvement, at least in the near term, might arrive primarily in the form of the agency responding to intervention from state lawmakers such as Assemblymember Chiu.
Mark Gustavson, an Aptos resident who lost his job as a charter pilot, was getting nowhere with the EDD until he was surprised to get a phone call at 10:15 a.m. on Sunday, July 5 from an EDD representative who promised that Gustavson’s unemployment benefits card would soon be mailed out with payments to follow soon thereafter.
What changed? Gustavson had just gotten in touch with state Assemblymember Mark Stone, whose district includes parts of Santa Cruz County, Monterey County, and Santa Clara County. Stone discussed the situation with the EDD.
“I’m a strong believer in the squeaky wheel theory,” Gustavson said. “It takes a lot to move a bureaucrat. What can you do? They know they’re going to keep their jobs no matter what they do. I thought Gavin Newsom was going to light a fire under the EDD. It hasn’t happened.”
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