SF Legislators Furious: EDD Cuts Back Help to their Unemployed Constituents

July 2, 2020

SF Legislators Furious: EDD Cuts Back Help to their Unemployed Constituents - (SF Chronicle - July 2)

Saying he and his colleagues in the Legislature are at “wit’s end” trying to help constituents who are unable to get unemployment benefits, Assemblyman David Chiu lambasted the Employment Development Department and especially its leadership in a Zoom conference Thursday held jointly with Sen. Scott Wiener.

The last straw for the two San Francisco Democrats was a memo they received from the EDD that stated, “Beginning June 22nd, each Assembly or Senate District Office may request one constituent referral per week to be expedited.”

Chiu called the letter “a classic example of bureaucratic arrogance and tone deafness.”

The letter gave no reason for the new limit. In late May, California Labor Secretary Julie Su said in a letter to legislators that the department was increasing the number of staffers dedicated to legislative offices from one to 25, and planned to add 20 more. Of those 45, 35 would be trained to resolve unemployment cases.

EDD “did increase their (legislative) staffing, and I think that helped for a period of time,” Chiu said, but then the memo came.

Wiener said his “jaw dropped” when he saw it. “One case a week is better than zero cases per week. It’s ridiculous. The idea that we would have to choose” which constituent needs help the most “makes no sense.” He added that “the people who have come to their legislators asking for help are the people who are the most desperate, although there are others who don’t know to contact their legislator,” and they should.

On the call were four women who applied for unemployment months ago and have been unable to reach EDD to resolve problems with their claim.

Taylor Whitehouse, who worked as a location scout for the film industry and a bartender in the Castro, said she received one payment of $155 on April 17. Since then, her benefits are listed as continuously pending. She said she called EDD’s expanded customer service line “100 times,” and finally got through to someone who couldn’t advance her claim. She did have a “disability flag” removed from her account, but then had to resubmit her application for review. “I don’t understand why I can’t access these benefits,” she said.

Jenni Rowe, who managed events at a major San Francisco hotel, was furloughed March 20 and was initially denied unemployment, for unexplained reasons, while her colleagues received payments. She reapplied a month later, and received verification that she would get payments, but since then has received only one in the 15 weeks she has been unemployed.

“I’ve called hundreds and hundreds of times,” Rowe said. Usually she gets a recording, but once she was able to click through some options, though, “at the very end it gets disconnected because there is too many callers ahead of me.”

Chiu noted that California’s aging information technology structure, which uses a “60-year old programming language called COBOL,” was dysfunctional during the last recession and was supposed to be upgraded before the next one hit, but still has not.

People asked to verify their identity — a big holdup in many cases — cannot even upload their photo identification to EDD’s website; they have to mail or fax it.

“I put these challenges squarely at the foot of the leadership of the agency itself,” Chiu said. “Many of the leaders who run this agency, they were the ones making excuses a decade ago for the failures of the system, for the failures of IT reform, and they’re very good at providing excuses, but we have not seen a proactive plan to address the crisis we have.” He added, “We need really transformational leadership, systemic reform leadership within EDD to look at this in different ways.”

Wiener said Senate Democrats have had calls with people from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration and the head of EDD “multiple times.” The senators “have expressed deep frustration” and asked the administration to get this fixed. The governor “wants to get this fixed,” Wiener said, but “It’s just going way, way, way way too slowly.”

Chiu said members of the Assembly have also had meetings and public hearings on the subject. “EDD always appears to have excuses. They have a long laundry list” of plans, accomplishments and challenges, but “we are at a point four months in where we need solutions ... to address the pain and suffering that is happening right now.”

He added that “just throwing bodies or money at the situation is not enough. They need to radically re-engineer their process, do an adequate job of training the people they have” and rethink their technology infrastructure.

Asked to respond, the EDD said in a statement that its staff cares “deeply about serving those impacted by this unprecedented pandemic, which hit at a time when the state was seeing record low unemployment with correspondingly low federal administrative funding and therefore reduced staffing levels. We continue to work around the clock, seven days a week to expand our capacity for processing this unprecedented demand for unemployment benefits as quickly as possible.

“We are enhancing our technology systems to increase efficiencies, and have already hired or have offers extended to more than 4,000 new staff needed as part of an expedited mass hiring effort with the increased federal funding we’ve received. We also put in place a chatbot and text message service to help provide Californians answers to their most common questions and help reduce the high demand for the call center.”