The California state Senate took the unusual step Wednesday of calling front-line state workers to talk about a historic backlog of unemployment claims that accumulated at the Employment Development Department during the coronavirus outbreak.

Three workers who process unemployment insurance claims told senators about the personal stresses and systemic challenges of their jobs in the recession that accompanied the pandemic.

“We went from working an eight-hour workday five days a week to working seven days a week up to 14 hours a day … saying people are stressed is an understatement,” said Irene Green, who said she has been an employment programs representative at the department for 11 years.

A strike team Gov. Gavin Newsom recently formed to identify and fix problems at the overwhelmed department said in a September report that experienced employees are critical to processing claims efficiently.

About 1.6 million claims were backlogged in September despite the department hiring thousands of new employees who have answered calls and tried to help applicants process claims. The report found that employee productivity went down during the hiring spree, since experienced employees have had to spend time training new employees instead of processing claims.

About 400,000 of those backlogged claims have been processed, and the department expects to get through the backlog by the end of January, Carol Williams, EDD’s chief deputy director of operations, said during Wednesday’s hearing.

Employees need at least six months of training and need to be familiar with an 800-page manual to process complex problems with claims, the report said.

The department’s outdated, patchwork technology systems contribute to the need for intensive training, but Newsom’s team noted technology isn’t the only hurdle.

Employees sometimes lack the flexibility to address easily fixable problems, and as a result, claims get diverted to a backlog where they wait for months for closer scrutiny, the report said.

John Torok, who said he’s been with EDD for 10 years, offered an example at Wednesday’s hearing.

Torok said employees sometimes see claims with obvious typos from applicants, such as a mis-typed number in a date of birth. If employees could fix those, they could process the claim.

The report recommended giving employees the ability to call and email claimants directly, which they hadn’t been able to do.

Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, said that until recently, people who failed to reach the department by phone and showed up in person were told they couldn’t be helped unless they called. Pan credited workers with helping get that changed.

“I think it’s so important we do listen to the workers on the front line,” he said.

Torok raised a more foundational issue: low pay. He told the committee the department is one of the lowest-paid in state government, along with the Department of Motor Vehicles. For that reason, he said it often serves as a starting point for state workers who move on to better-paying jobs in other departments or outside of government.

The department’s employees, like the rest of the state’s workforce, are working at reduced pay under a state pay-cut program that reduces employees’ pay and gives them two flexible days off per month.

Joyce Wheeler-Owens, an employment programs representative who said she has worked at the department for 13 years, applauded the report’s recommendations to improve efficiency.

“We all do try, but we’re a department with lots of challenges, lots of regulations, and we really would appreciate the opportunity to be a little more streamlined,” Wheeler-Owens said.

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