As joblessness approaches 11 percent in California, the Employment Development Department has been swamped by a continuous surge in unemployment insurance claims.
It now has State Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez to contend with as well.
Florez (D-Shafter) has repeatedly criticized the EDD for what he says is its inability to adequately satisfy the rising numbers of unemployment claims coming in on a daily basis.
“This department clearly has not been proactive in preparing for the type of worst-case scenario they are experiencing,” Florez told The Sacramento Bee.
As reported recently in The Aggie, nearly 800,000 unemployed workers in the state were receiving benefits, roughly a 66 percent rise from a year ago. According to the EDD 1.9 million Californians are currently without work.
Most recently, Florez turned his attention to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. In a letter to the governor, Florez said it was “unconscionable” that so many struggling Californians have had so much difficulty contacting the EDD to get their claims processed or their questions answered.
“There is no doubt this is the largest single failure of government I have encountered during my tenure in the legislature,” Florez said. “Unfortunately for [the unemployed], the EDD seems to be operating without a coherent plan to even pick up the phone when they call for help.“
The next day, the governor quickly allocated $415 million of 2009 federal Recovery Act funds toward bolstering the state’s job-training and career service centers. The funds are to be distributed by the EDD.
“With unemployment affecting historic numbers of Californians in this difficult economy, I am committed to doing everything within my power to provide relief to our unemployed and get Californians back to work,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement.
The governor opened EDD call centers on Saturdays, authorized the hiring of 850 new EDD caseworkers, and recently opened 25 statewide employment offices on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., to assist those who do not have Internet access, or who needed help getting their claims filed by telephone.
According to Pat Joyce, communications officer at the EDD, the extra Saturday office and call center hours have begun to make a difference.
“Well, the first Saturday we got 7,000 more calls, so that’s 7,000 more people we were able to process,” Joyce said. “That’s important to those people.” Joyce said that despite the recent problems the EDD has maintained a good record of getting claimants‘ checks out to them in a timely fashion, and urged people to continue filing their initial claims through EDD’s website.
That response is too late, said Florez.
“These are steps that should have been planned for and taken months ago,” Florez said via e-mail. “We’ve seen unemployment rise for the past 11 months. Give me a break.“
Some of Florez’s strongest criticisms are aimed at the telephone and computer technology currently in place at the EDD. Florez has urged the governor to declare an “economic emergency” to put extra manpower and funds into overhauling a system he feels has gone unchanged for far too long.
Joyce admitted to the problems in the computer system, saying that it is “three decades old,” and that because of the huge volume of new calls “our phone lines have simply been getting plugged.” The computer system used by the EDD was first developed in 1959.
Joyce said one reason for the delay in upgrading the system is the extreme caution legislators now take with new technology after a botched vetting process several years ago that resulted in a costly and flawed Oracle computer system.
If there is agreement that the technology needs improvement, it remains unclear just how long it will take for changes to take effect.
For the job seekers at the EDD Career Center at 2901 50th St. in Sacramento, results were mixed. Arturo Mocorra, leaving the EDD office, said a lot more people were there in the morning.
“Earlier, there were a lot of people in line, but many of them got frustrated and left,” Mocorra said. “People were getting a phone message to wait.“
Mocorra, who said this was his first time being unemployed, said he waited in line for three hours to use the center’s telephone lines before he finally got some human assistance.
“I had questions I didn’t understand. I asked some security officers, they said they were not able to help,” he said. “But I finally got what I needed. That lady [EDD staff member] helped me.”
For others leaving the EDD center, the outcome was not as satisfactory, including one young man, who preferred to remain nameless.
“I couldn’t comment on how it went in there, man,” he said while walking away. “It’s hard, man, it’s hard.“
TOM MORRIS can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.