SACRAMENTO — California state lawmakers unleashed their frustrations about the state’s unemployment system Thursday, demanding answers from an agency director about the problems their jobless constituents have endured trying to access the financial lifeline during the pandemic.
“We’ve never heard the type of suffering people are experiencing right now,” said Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco). “The feedback we’re getting is atrocious.”
The comments at a budget subcommittee hearing came hours after the U.S. Department of Labor released data showing California’s number of pandemic-induced unemployment claims had climbed to nearly 4.9 million — about 25 percent of California’s pre-pandemic workforce. The avalanche of claims has overwhelmed the state’s Employment Development Department and its aging technology systems, sending many desperate residents to lawmakers for help.
Lawmakers told the agency’s director, Sharon Hilliard, that their staff had been flooded with calls from constituents struggling to learn about the status of their claims or unable to reach EDD staff to have their questions answered. They cited a litany of problems, from delayed claims updates — provided by regular mail — to a lack of capacity to assist workers who speak languages besides English and Spanish, which Chiu said was a civil rights concern.
Constituents desperate for a lifeline will call the department, make their way through an automated menu and then get “hangups, for Pete’s sake,” said Assemblyman Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale).
“Even from some of the live calls we have hangups,” he added, referring to residents being dropped mid-call. “That’s really unacceptable.”
Hilliard did not refute the criticism, but explained that the agency — staffed earlier in the year for an unemployment rate of a mere 3.9 percent — had to rapidly escalate its operations.
“I don’t like it either,” she said. “I totally agree with you. It’s not acceptable.”
She said agency leaders expect to hire some 1,700 people in the next two weeks and upgrade the IT system as was planned before the pandemic, choosing a new vendor this fall. In response to lawmakers’ questions, she said the department was considering ways to send certain notifications by email and how to alert people more quickly if there were errors or missing information on their applications that could delay payments.
Assemblyperson Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) said she had some sympathy for the department. But, she said, “I have more sympathy for the folks in my district, many of whom were already living on the brink of poverty.”