State jobs agency must reform, lawmakers say
Sixtyone state lawmakers sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday asking for bigger and faster changes to the state’s backlogged, antiquated unemployment system than he promised in his “strike team” announcement last week.
“It is apparent to us that while so many EDD staffers are working hard under unprecedented circumstances, EDD is an organization directed by a small inner circle of longserving bureaucrats rooted in the status quo and unable to drive reform,” the letter said. “Given how little has improved at EDD over the course of the pandemic and its overall resistance to change, others must be brought in to assess the crisis and be provided authority to make change.”
The letter called for many changes, including beefing up EDD’S customer service center, pay
ing partial benefits to people while they’re waiting for their claims to be approved and treating claimants with more respect. “There is a culture within EDD that presumes every claimant may be guilty of fraud and must prove themselves innocent, rather than a desperate constituent who should be treated with compassion and dignity via a model of truly customerfocused government,” it said.
The letter was spearheaded by Assemblyman David Chiu, Dsan Francisco, and signed by 49 Democrats, 11 Republicans and one independent.
The Newsom administration “is fully committed to ensuring impacted California workers get the benefits they have earned,” Vicky Waters, a spokesman for the governor, said in an email. “Since March, the state has processed 9.3 million claims and paid $55.1 billion in benefits, as well as quickly implemented several federal pandemicrelated programs that have helped millions of workers.” She added that EDD has redirected and hired staff to assist with calls and claims, and created a chat box and text messaging alert system for claimants.
EDD said it is reviewing the letter for a possible response.
Sharon Hilliard, EDD’S director, disclosed last week that about 1.13 million unemployment claims have not been paid or resolved, but the authors said they believe that number is “much higher” based on U.S. Department of Labor data.
That total includes 239,000 claims “pending resolution,” meaning they just need action from EDD. Newsom said last week that “EDD is actively processing all claims in the ‘Pending Resolution’ category and anticipates eliminating the backlog of actionable claims by the end of September.”
An additional 889,000 may be eligible with additional information from the claimants. This includes about 587,000 who haven’t gone online to certify that they are eligible for benefits they’ve been conditionally awarded and 302,000 who did not provide wage claim information. EDD noted in a footnote to a
chart last week that “due to the unprecedented demand and workload,” some of those 302,000 claimants “may not have been able to contact EDD to provide the necessary documents. Claimants may have submitted information and documents that have not been identified as actionable workload items.”
The legislators said they “want a commitment from you for when the backlog will be eliminated, ideally by an earlier date,” pointing out that the end of September will be more than six months after the state imposed a stayathome order.
Chiu spokeswoman Jennifer Kwart clarified that the authors want the 239,000 claims paid before late September. For the other 889,000, “There needs to be a plan for how to resolve them, especially for that group of 302,000. EDD very well might have the information it needs from those people” to pay claims.
Newsom said last week he is forming a “strike team” supported by the California Department of Technology and the Office of Digital Innovation to find ways to transform unemployment insurance for the digital age. “Within 45 days, the strike team will deliver a road map that outlines short, mid and longterm recommendations and solutions,” he said.
The legislators said they want the strike team to also include “thought leaders and
employees from different levels of EDD’S organization whose input has not been valued” and privatesector technology experts. They also said, “Changing EDD’S practices and culture will require a longer (than 45 days), sustained effort by the EDD strike team, as well as real authority to overrule EDD leadership, who has continued to stymie change.”
Specifically, the legislators asked for the following improvements:
1 Provide many claimants initial or partial benefits while EDD is reviewing their claim. On March 20, Labor Secretary Julie Su directed EDD to pay claims before making a final eligibility determination. During an assembly subcommittee hearing last week, Hilliard said the federal Labor Department questioned this directive. “We do not believe this was true, and instead, is indicative of EDD’S inclination towards overly restrictive interpretations of eligibility requirements,” the letter said.
1 Immediately beef up the customer support line (8003005616) where agents can look into a person’s claim and solve complex problems. It’s only open four hours on weekday mornings and has 100 agents. EDD says it takes six months to train these people.
EDD this year opened a second phone line (8339782511) that operates from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. seven days per week, but these agents “will not have access to your claim or payment information,” EDD says on its website. EDD says it has about 1,100 people answering these two lines, but plans to have 2,600 by the end of August and provide “more thorough training and resources” so staff can answer more complex questions.
1 Consolidate “the overwhelming amount of information” on EDD website and make it userfriendly.
1 Assign an EDD staffer to each legislative office.
1 Resolve identity verification bottlenecks.
1 Rephrase questions and directly incorporate more information on biweekly certification forms so claimants do not answer incorrectly and jeopardize benefits.
1 Train staff to deal better with employees who may have been incorrectly classified as independent contractors under AB5.
1 Speed up EDD’S 11year technology modernization program, now in its fourth year, and consider moving to a cloudbased system.
1 Hold Deloitte and other outside vendors more accountable.