California EDD: 'It's really a problem, and people are suffering'

{A href=""}BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) Problems continue for people trying to get answers about their disability or unemployment benefits in California.

Officials with the Employment Development Department say they've struggled with lower funds and a higher case load, and they promise improvements are on the way.

Some of the changes won't happen until this summer, and some lawmakers question whether other improvements will really deliver the help people need.

Eyewitness News investigates EDD problems, Part I

Eyewitness News investigates EDD problems, Part II:

The biggest complaints are that people can not reach anyone on the EDD phone lines. Eyewitness News viewers say they try calling hundreds of times and never get through. They may get a recording that says the "maximum calls have been received," and sometimes they get hung up on at that point.

Others told Eyewitness News they've tried to use the EDD website, and also had no luck. Some say they never get a response, or some are told to call the EDD phone lines. At that point, again they can't get through.

"It's caused havoc, because I take medications and I need these," Chuck Munoz said.

He's been trying for months to get his unemployment benefits, after being laid off from a job last year. He moved in with a relative in Bakersfield last October. By December, he was frustrated, and contacted Eyewitness News.

"You immediately emailed me, and I was really glad you did," Munoz explained. At that time, an EDD spokeswoman was answering our questions about viewer problems, and we gave the spokeswoman's email address to six viewers.

Munoz was one of those, and he says he got benefits for a few weeks. And then, no more help. He tried both the phone line and EDD website, but couldn't get through. That was late December.

"There have been some issues right now that's affecting our ability to timely process unemployment and disability insurance claims, and answer customer questions," EDD spokeswoman Loree Levy told Eyewitness News. "We know that's frustrating, we know it's difficult to get through."

Levy is the Deputy Director of Public Affairs in the EDD Sacramento office. The department has no unemployment offices open to the public, and for Kern County, the closest EDD disability office is Fresno.

Levy says there are several reasons the department struggles to keep up with client questions and cases.

"In the unemployment program, we're facing a $128 million shortfall in our federal funding," Levy said. "That's a 27 percent cut, that's enough money that could support 1,200 staff."

She said federal funding went up during the peak of the recession, and EDD hired more staff then. But, the federal dollars have been reduced now.

Plus, the staff they have must take state-required furlough days off.

"It's forcing state staff to take a day off without pay every month in our unemployment (division), that means we're down staff every day," Levy said. "We just don't have the number of staff that we'd like to be able to put on the phones ready to answer any calls that come in, it's just not possible right now."

That's left a lot of frustrated and needy people.

"I have only $40 left to my name, and I need to know where my payment is, and if there is a problem how to fix it," one viewer emailed to Eyewitness News. Another said she has four children, and she faces eviction without unemployment benefits.

"I am behind in so many bills, my husband and I are getting calls from collections," another wrote it. "They sent an initial check and then just stopped. It's been a month now and we don't even have money for food."

When Eyewitness News started investigating, the first six viewers contacted the EDD spokeswoman by email. But, by the Dec. 24 she asked us to instead send viewers' information to her. We sent up several lists with a total of 72 names.

By Dec. 28, the EDD spokeswoman said they could no longer accept viewer information from Eyewitness News. By Feb. 5, we'd heard from 99 additional viewers saying they could not get through to EDD, and could not get their benefits.

"Our office has been taking like 30-40 calls daily," State Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, told Eyewitness News. "It's really a problem, and people are suffering."

Fuller's office has one staffer who tries to help constituents. Fuller said in 2008 things seemed to get better with EDD, but now it's worse again.

"I think the system is broken, and it needs some fixing," Fuller said.

At EDD, Levy said they are doing some fixing.

"We have some people working overtime on Saturdays, to the extent that we can," Levy said. They hope that will lead to faster response. "We encourage people, please remain patient," she said. "It's just going to be difficult with our limited resources we have available."

They also hope to make changes that will require fewer people to call the EDD phone lines.

"We're clarifying notices and forms," Levy explained. "We do get calls from people saying, 'I'm not quite sure that this means.'"

That's an improvement Sen. Fuller really wants to see. "Streamline the paperwork," she urges. "So that an ordinary person can fill it out."

Levy says EDD wants more people using the website, especially the "self help" tools. "We're putting a lot of information up on our (Frequently Asked Questions) on our website, in our social media channels -- hopefully answering questions they may have," she said.

But, Alicia Vasquez says that didn't work for her. She's going to school to be a respiratory therapist while she's getting unemployment benefits after being laid off. She missed a required meeting, and tried to reschedule it.

"I emailed them through the Ask EDD, and told them my situation," Vasquez said. "They sent a letter in the mail, to do what the letter says -- which was to go online and ask for help and call, and it's been pretty much a dead end," she said.

Chuck Munoz also says he tried Ask EDD. "I've never gotten a response," he said. Munoz added his cousin in Orange County also tried that, with no results.

EDD said they are in the middle of upgrading the website system.

"When we get this new automation effort up and running in summer where people can check their status of the payments, check the status of their claims, do that so we can verify their eligibility online by by telephone -- this is going to create greater efficiency," Levy said.

Asked exactly when that would happen this summer, she couldn't say.

As for changes with disability claims, that's supposed to be completely changed over by March 1. EDD has set up a new online system to replace paper forms used in the past. EDD has said that transition has slowed things down, Levy says there will be positive results when they're using online only.

"Once we get rid of these old forms, truly working in the new system -- we really, truly expect to gain some greater efficiencies and be very fast with being able to get back to people's claims and their questions," Levy said.

But, Sen. Fuller is still worried. "We're not sure that March first is going to get that much better for a while," she told Eyewitness News. Fuller says her office is supposed to get some packets, so they can give those to constituents having problems with disability claims.

The online system, SDI Online, has been under fire from critics who say it was horribly over budget and years late. EDD says the passage of some laws and state policy forced them to make changes to the system as it was being developed. Project contracts awarded in 2010 put the overall cost at $119.3 million, the overall price tag was revised to $157.8 million in November 2011.

"The extra years of ongoing costs cover the anticipated time period for state staff to be able to fully support the new system on their own," an EDD statement reads.

As for unemployment, EDD points to data showing California has a lot more claims than any other state. Their most recent numbers show California has processed as many regular unemployment claims as the next highest states of New York, Florida and Texas combined.

It's been a perfect storm, according to Levy. "We've had increasing population and demand, and decreasing funding and staff to try to meet these needs," Levy said. "That doesn't work."

Funds for unemployment claims come from contributions to the California UI Trust Fund, EDD says. "Employers pay contributions to the California UI Trust Fund which is used to pay regular state-provided unemployment benefits," a statement reads. "Employers also pay federal unemployment taxes, called FUTA, to support administration of the UI program, loans to insolvent states, and federal extension benefits."

California is one of the states needing more money, and borrowing from the federal government. It's one of 23 states doing this.

The EDD statement says California's UI Trust Fund is now $10.7 billion in the red, and projected to end 2013 with a $10.2 billion deficit. Payments on the interest have been covered by a loan from the State Disability Insurance fund, but because of the situation, employers are paying more in the FUTA taxes.

That rankles State Assemblywoman Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield), she's upset about impacts on the state budget. "For what?" she asks. "These people aren't even opening the mail."

Grove's office also gets calls from constituents who can't get answers or help from EDD. "We're helping everybody that needs help, but we shouldn't have to going to legislators to get their unemployment benefits," Grove said. "That's not the way it used to be."

EDD says they're also in the process of replacing the "continued claim" system, so people can submit their forms online and get more information about claims and payments. "As part of the project, we are also upgrading the 'EDD Tele-Cert' (telephone continued claims) system," a statement reads. "This will help us reduce common claimant errors that currently result in about 20 percent of received paper forms having to be returned to claimants for corrections such as missing signatures, answering both yes and no, to a question, etc."

Levy said sometimes delays in getting benefits happen during the continued claim process after a worker has initially filed.

"Employers have the ability to weigh in on the separation issue that may exist for that employee," she said. "What may happen is we process payments, we hear back from an employer, which now challenges the eligibility of that employee. We have to go through a determination process." That can hold up benefits till it's resolved.

But, the phones and the website are where people try to get answers, and many say that's not happening.

"I have to buy medications, food and gas to look for work," Chuck Munoz says. He got some benefits when Eyewitness News helped him in December, and at that time an EDD worker told him to use the website.

"It'll be real quick, you put it in there, it's easy," he was told. "I did it, never got my money that way." Munoz said he went back to the EDD phone lines, and again never got through. "Sorry, we can't help you," the phone message said. "Too many people on the line. Hangs up."

"We're getting there, this is just a very difficult time, we acknowledge that," EDD's Loree Levy said. "We just ask people to be patient, we truly will come out with better systems in place and better efficiency."

But, who can make sure EDD makes enough improvements to help people who need their disability or unemployment benefits?

"It ultimately falls in the Governor's lap," Assemblywoman Grove said. And Levy agreed EDD comes under the administration of Governor Jerry Brown.

Eyewitness News asked the governor's office for a statement, but we were referred back to EDD and Levy as their spokesperson.

Senator Jean Fuller also puts the responsibility with the governor. "I think the Governor's office needs to be made aware," she said. "We're very happy that you're highlighting the problem," she added. "It's a large problem, a real problem."

Sen. Fuller said constituents can contact her office at 323-0443. And Grove's office said they can be reached in Sacramento at (916) 319-2034 or in Bakersfield at 395-2995. State Sen. Michael Rubio has just resigned, but his staffers say they are "ready and willing" to help constituents. They can be reached at his district office in Bakersfield at 395-2620.

EDD says things will be better by this summer, and Eyewitness News will check back with viewers then to see if the situation has improved. Chuck Munoz says he needs help as soon as possible, and so far it hasn't been coming from EDD.

"Meanwhile, you're trying to mess with me and my money," Munoz says. "And I'm trying to look for a job."