After Newsom Shut Down Businesses, His Government Is Unable to Answer Calls About COVID Unemployment Claims Or Respond To Consumer Inquires

After Newsom Shut Down Businesses, His Government Is Unable to Answer Calls About COVID Unemployment Claims Or Respond To Consumer Inquires

Trying to get through to the state’s unemployment agency call center remains a grueling, frustrating chore for many people — yet the Employment Development Department has been warned time and again that the system badly needed fixing. “Despite knowing for years that it had problems with call center performance, EDD has not yet adopted best practices for managing the call center, leaving it ill prepared to assist Californians effectively,” California State Auditor Elaine Howle reported in January. She issued a similar warning a decade ago, the last time unemployment claims overwhelmed the department. The auditor said in 2011 EDD made progress revamping its system after being inundated with calls during the 2007-09 recession, but that “access to agents may continue to be a challenge.”

Problems persisted, and the agency in 2014 told lawmakers that it had significantly improved its call center, enabling it to answer more calls more quickly. Those changes worked for awhile. But by early 2020, before the COVID pandemic sent claims surging in mid-March, the auditor found the department wasn’t meeting its performance goals. Then the pandemic came, and the number of calls being answered ran as low as 1%. EDD officials today say the situation is improving, but many Californians are still having trouble getting questions answered. Take, for instance, Cecelia Maldonado of Fresno.

She started calling an EDD line at 8 a.m. on a recent Friday, when the phone line opened. She said she called about 20 times and finally got an answer. She held for awhile, and then was disconnected. After lunch, she started trying again. She got through, held for half an hour, and then got a woman who asked her to hold some more. Finally, an hour and a half later, the woman returned and said she could not help her, but gave her to another agent. He said he couldn’t help either. By then it was 4:30 p.m. So she tried again Monday. No one answered. Tuesday. No one answered. Thursday, ditto. Maldanado complained to Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, who has been active in trying to revamp the system.and has been trying to help her. He found her frustration was not unique.

“This department has been failing for years with no accountability. For so many people, the only way to fix the problems on their account and get paid is to talk to an actual human,” he said. “That’s why people call hundreds of times and wait on hold for hours on end – it’s their only hope. And for many that hope is dashed when they finally get through only to be hung up on.” Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, has been critical of EDD’s performance. His office’s caseworkers say the nature of constituent complaints has not really changed since the beginning of the pandemic.


The call center’s problems are not new.

“I can’t believe we have any kind of customer service put in place that requires people to call to a busy line over 40 times,” Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, said at an Insurance Committee hearing on EDD in November, 2013. Last week, Gonazelz told the Bee of the call center situation today, “I get a ton of complaints from people who can’t get through.” In 2014, the Legislature got a commitment from EDD that the agency would answer 50,000 claimant calls each week. Crucial to that effort was EDD’s receipt of more funding to hire staff.

The next year, EDD reported to the Legislature that in the first 29 weeks of 2015, it met or exceeded the goal during 22 of the weeks. It said the number of times a caller had to dial to get the call center— which was up to 31 weeks on average in 2014 — was down to under five attempts. In 2016 and 2017, EDD said it was often exceeding the 50,000 goal. But from January to mid-March of last year, before the pandemic, EDD was not meeting the goal in most weeks. The auditor found it answered about 42,000 calls per week, and met the 50,000 goal in four of the 11 weeks. Those numbers were less than one-fourth of the 184,000 calls a week seeking to speak to an agent. Seventeen percent of the calls were blocked because of technical limitations.

Then came the COVID-related surge and EDD was answering less than 1% of the calls and it “failed to answer hundreds of thousands of requests for assistance that claimants submitted online,” the auditor said. The agency added thousands of staff members to help and added a new phone system, and in April, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered EDD’s oversight agency to expand call center hours and ensure sufficient staffing levels to process claims. But problems persisted. In the first week of August, for instance, EDD agents answered about 161,000 calls. But 1 million people had tried to get through, meaning 84% of calls were unanswered. FRUSTRATED CUSTOMERS Sierra Beck, a spa owner in Orange County, has been calling for weeks with questions. Last Monday, she called at 8:01 a.m., as soon as the center opened.

She was on hold for an hour and a half and then the line disconnected. She tried again, was on hold for another hour and a half, and finally got through. But her questions remained unanswered. Alan Kasparian of Fresno finally gave up trying to call. He said he’s not getting all the payments that are due to him, and after a month and a half of constantly trying to get through or get answers, he’s fed up. He called and got a recording saying it had an overwhelming number of calls and that he should try a different number. He did, but like Beck, the line often disconnected him after he waited.

“The number you’re calling because the other one is full is too full,” he said. He too is still trying to get his situation resolved.


Help is on the way, said Rita Saenz, who’s been EDD’s director since late December. Saenz told the auditors that by May, EDD will implement a policy to “establish a process for tracking and analyzing the reasons why UI claimants call for assistance.” By October, she said, EDD will start analyzing the data it collects to “improve the customer experience with specific focus on enhancements to self-service and non-call center options that assists customers.” It will also use the data to find way to help with specialized training for staff.

Saenz and the auditor agree on progress on a vital part of the phone system. The auditor wants EDD to have the phone system allow callers to request a callback from an agent, instead of having to wait on hold. Saenz wrote that EDD “agrees with this recommendation” and has been working to implement it. Loree Levy, EDD spokeswoman, said the agency is rapidly making progress in improving the system. She said 900 new call agents are in the process of being hired to improve call center operations, and EDD is providing information to help customers self-serve as much as possible so calls will decrease and help make agents more available to customers with more complex needs. Levy said the average wait time to talk with a representative once in the queue is about 40 minutes and “We are continuing to take action to help even more.”

During the week that ended February 20, EDD had 3,541 agents helping to take calls to help people across California. Its call centers run every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., with several of the self-help options available 24 hours a day. But the system remains overwhelmed. In the two weeks ending February 13, it got 11.7 million calls—which includes repeat dialers—from 679,752 callers. Staff was able to answer 521,991 calls. THE PROBLEMS PERSIST Today, callers still report big trouble with the system. “It’s like a full time job trying to get through,” said Beck. “You finally get someone and then they can’t help you.”

Kasparian had worked for agricultural companies for 41 years before being laid off in July. He got his benefits throughout last year, but then the trouble started. He was due an additional $300 per week because of a new federal benefit approved in December. He’s still waiting for the extra money. He tried calling EDD, and after waiting for hours, “they hung up.” He tried seven more times, and finally got a specialist who said he was already certified despite having received emails to the contrary. Then money began disappearing from his debit card, money that he had not withdrawn. He gave up on EDD and started calling Bank of America. He’s still trying to get all this resolved, and has no confidence EDD will be able to help.

“This is the first time in my life I’ve taken unemployment,” he said, “and I’ve learned the system stinks.”

Source: The Sacramento Bees