If you thought it was impossible to reach a human being about your California unemployment insurance claim in the last six months, you were nearly right, according to a recent report released by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration.
No more than one in 1,000 callers per day have reached someone at the number the Employment Development Department has told people to call for help with their claims, leaving callers “without a statistically significant chance of being served,” according to a new report from a team of government executives Newsom appointed to address problems at the department.
Members of the team visited a call center one morning in the last seven weeks and were confused about whether they had found the right place.
“When we visited the office where it is housed, and asked where the call center was, an employee speculated that perhaps it had moved to Southern California, but that was determined to be inaccurate,” the report’s authors wrote.
The team learned that the Northern California office dotted with empty cubicles wasn’t “intentionally established as a call center.” It is an office with some phones connected to the number the department has told people to call to resolve issues with their claims from 8 a.m. to noon.
During a 90-minute period, the strike team observed four live phone calls, two of which were determined to be fraudulent, the report says.
When team members looked at a supervisor’s dashboard, no more than 20 employees at a time were answering calls, according to the report.
The help line could not be routed outside. So when the group of employees with enough training to resolve claims issues started teleworking or were assigned other tasks, “they stopped answering the phones,” the strike team learned.
The visit illustrated the complaints that California lawmakers and jobless residents have raised for months since the coronavirus outbreak drove the state’s economy to standstill and put millions on unemployment.
Last month, EDD Director Sharon Hilliard told lawmakers that people contacting the department to ask about claims were waiting four to six weeks to have their calls returned. The department has a backlog of some 1.6 million unemployment claims that require some sort of verification. It estimates it won’t resolve them all until January.
The 109-page report on EDD operations was produced by a team led by Government Operations Agency Secretary Yolanda Richardson and Jennifer Pahlka, who co-founded the United States Digital Response and the United States Digital Service and founded Code for America. It included state Technology Department Director and CIO Amy Tong and other state government officials.
At the team’s recommendation, the department has paused processing new claims for two weeks to reorient itself and make progress on its claims backlog. Among the changes will be a reshuffling of employees.
The department has been hiring lots of people to try to speed up claims processing, but it hasn’t worked well, according to the report. At the end of August, 2,250 people were working at call centers, according to the report.
The department established a second call center that is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., but the second center isn’t staffed with people who can fix the kinds of claims problems that require extra help.
Many callers who try the second center, even if they reach someone, end up having to call the first center, according to the report.
Part of the problem is that the workers who are knowledgeable about fixing issues with claims — those familiar with the 800-page training manual on the subject — have been forced to spend their time training new employees, according to the report.
The report says those employees should go back to resolving problems with backlogged claims, while employees who have been redirected or recently hired should focus on tasks such as mail sorting, processing and tracking.
The department is also implementing new software, called ID.me, to help verify identities so that far fewer claims require extra scrutiny.
The department accepted all of the strike team’s recommendations.
“At this time, EDD anticipates eliminating the current backlog by January 27, 2020, and is proactively looking at ways to reduce that timeline,” Hilliard wrote in a response to the report. “Alternatively, if no changes were made, the EDD would still be working through the current backlog well into July 2021.”
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