State jobs agency must re­form, law­mak­ers say

San Francisco Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - KATH­LEEN PEN­DER

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.

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