EDITORIAL: Can you pick up the phone?

FresnoFebruary 1, 2014 

People looking for work or trying to find out where their unemployment checks are can't reach human beings at the California Employment Development Department. The state has announced a sweeping overhaul of the department and the hiring of more workers.


California's unemployment rate fell last month to 8.3%, still far too high, and above the national rate.

What's truly appalling is that in a state that supposedly is favorably inclined toward labor, unemployed workers cannot get their questions answered when they call the Employment Development Department.

As the Los Angeles Times reported on Jan. 20 and The Sacramento Bee has reported in past months, people looking for work or trying to find out where their unemployment checks are cannot reach human beings at the department.

On any given day, as many as 90% of callers to the Employment Development Department seeking information about missed payments or unprocessed claims failed to reach a live worker, The Times reported, based on agency phone records it obtained.

During a three-month period ending Jan. 4, the department received an average of 3.9 million calls a week. Between 83% and 90% of those calls went unanswered on any given day, according to The Times.

Some callers did get through, but did so by dialing in 40 times or more.

Most often, callers got routed to recordings directing them to seek answers on the EDD website or get help through an automated self-service phone number, although those services are spotty, too.

The report comes four months after a failed computer upgrade delayed unemployment benefits for 150,000 Californians.

Employment development officials say they are unhappy with their performance and blame budget cuts. The federal government, which pays most costs associated with administering the unemployment insurance program, has reduced subsidies. The department responded by cutting 300 staffers in the past three months.

Gov. Jerry Brown proposes to provide $64 million to retain staff and pay overtime in an attempt to bring claims processing service back to its 2012 level.

And Assembly Member Henry T. Perea of Fresno, who chairs the Insurance Committee, has asked for $12 million to add 200 workers to answer calls. He also requested that the State Auditor identify problems in the Unemployment Insurance, or UI, appeals process.

"Further action must be taken to improve the UI program," Perea said in a news release.

"Clearly the system is still broken when claimants have to call EDD on average 40 times to get through, and when over 50% of UI denied claims that are appealed are overturned. My plan lays out a set of reasonable proposals to improve the UI program, and give claimants better service."

Without the hiring of more workers, there is little prospect of callers connecting with a real person. EDD has employees answering phones from 8 a.m. to noon and assigns its employees to process claims in the afternoon.

To be sure, society is ever more automated. We pay bills online and use ATM cards rather than wait in line for bank tellers.

But people who are out of work through no fault of their own can be understandably short on patience. They deserve the simple courtesy of a live voice at the end of the phone.


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