As unemployment levels rose during the recession, the work load at the California Employment Development Department spiked while the department was losing funding and laying off employees. Now the state has announced it will make $43 million available to EDD next week.
There are varying degrees of success people have had navigating the system and how EDD says it will address some of its problems.
The Employment Development Department says busy signals will be a thing of the past for people trying to call from their own phones because automated features will be added to the department phone system.
Currently, people who are able to access an automated system often hear a recording that says, "Thank you for calling the Employment Development Department Unemployment Insurance Office. We are currently receiving more calls than we can answer."
EDD plans to hire, rehire or retain more than 700 people and upgrade its internal computer system.
But, EDD says it can't promise to eliminate all of the problems.
In Sacramento, the job-training center on Broadway has become the last resort for hundreds of people who have tried to call from private phones. The building has a direct line to an EDD call center. Callers using the direct line get no busy signal.
Cherie Valentino of Sacramento says it took two hours to make contact with a human.
"The system is stupid. I mean when you can honestly say someone is worse than DMV? C'mon," Valentino says. "With DMV, you can get an appointment."
She says it was a frustrating process, but it did have one benefit. At home, she'd be frustrated alone. Here, 20 other people line up at 8 a.m. every work day for a chance to use one of six phones.
“I was told by a lovely person that was next to me that you wait to hear them say ‘Welcome’ not ‘Thank you.’ The difference being ‘Welcome’ gets you through and maybe you can get to an operator. But when you go through all the -your social security, your pin number, whatever, then it says, ‘We have too many calls. We’re unable to help you at this time.’ and you start all over again.”
Valentino says, once she got through, she was very pleased with how quickly her claim was handled.
Loree Levy with EDD says the department receives nearly four million calls a week. As many as 90 percent get a busy signal.
“There are other options to using the phone. We know the phones are frustrating. We’re not happy with it either," Levy says. "But, we’re trying to do whatever we can as best we can with the limited staff we have.”
The recording most people hear currently tells them to "visit the website at www.edd.ca.gov."
Levy says the website is almost always the best bet.
She says the phone system will be updated soon to record callback information and to make automated calls that remind people of their appointments.
Venesa Lofton of Riverside says right now a call back is nearly impossible to arrange despite her, "calling from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m non-stop over a period of three months."
She was forced to go on disability in 2012 with pregnancy complications and was laid off.
"Calling and emailing and waiting and it was a very stressful and lengthy process. At that moment, me and my family didn't know how we were gonna get through it," Lofton says.
She says her family of four lived on food stamps and her $700 monthly disability check. When she was able to work, the disability checks ended. But, she couldn’t find a job, so she mailed an unemployment claim.
The advice on the recorded message says, "If you have questions about your claim, you may submit them online, by clicking the "Contact EDD" feature on the front page of EDD's web site." There was no response for weeks.
By chance, she found the address of a call center in Riverside.
"I went over there and I knocked on the door and the lady came out and she said, ‘We’re just the call center. You have to call.’ And I said, ‘I haven’t been paid in two months. You know, why can’t someone help me?’ And she just shut the door behind her.”
Lofton found part-time work last month. She has received some unemployment benefits, but says she's still owed $656.
The recording most people hear currently says, "Please allow ten days for processing via online or phone."
The U.S. Department of Labor allocated $328 million this year for EDD operations, but EDD says that's $150 million short of what it should have received using the federal funding formula.
EDD's Levy says the annual shortfall has caused the department to leave 1,100 positions vacant since 2009. EDD cut its call center hours in half last May.
“Answering phones is only one element of our staff’s job. They also must process applications for benefits, respond to emails, assist with processing bi-weekly certifications for benefits.“
Levy says 20 percent of claims take up the majority of staff time and effort. She says most of those claims were filled out improperly or are being challenged by the person’s former employer.
But, people like Terra Bark say neither description applies to them. She heard nothing about her unemployment claim, so she went to the Sacramento job training center -the place of last resort- in Sacramento to find out what happened to her claim. She wasn't even given the chance to wait in line for a phone.
“They had no access to any information. She didn’t give me any information. She just said, ‘Here.’ She just handed me a piece of paper. It has the website on it. She said I could leave them a message. So, I mean, really, I got the run-around pretty much is what I got.”
With the new state commitment of $43 million, EDD says it hopes to provide better results soon. Specialists could be hired within two weeks to resolve internal computer problems. Other new hires could start working on claims as early as March 1st. The phone system might not be updated until April.
Until then the recording will continue to say to many Californians, "Thank you. Good bye."
Unemployment Statistics In California
|Data Archives||Current Data
For the Month of December 2013
|Minimum Weekly Benefit Amount||$40|
|Maximum Weekly Benefit Amount||$450|
|Average Weekly Benefit Amount||$302|
|Initial Claims Filed||310,075|
|Insured Unemployment Rate (13 week average)||2.90%|