EDD recipients not impressed with changes in system

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) Workers needing unemployment or disability benefits have complained for months about problems getting information or their payments. The state's Employment Development Department promised improvements by this summer, and officials insist they're seeing results. But, some recipients told Eyewitness News they still can't even reach EDD.

"I've been looking for jobs online," David Stiner said in late June. "I went to EDD again, and still haven't received any response from them whatsoever."

Since last fall, Eyewitness News has been contacted by several hundred viewers with problems like those Stiner is experiencing.

Part II - EDD investigation

In February, an EDD spokeswoman at her headquarters in Sacramento said they had several new programs underway to streamline the process and add efficiency. By early July, Loree Levy told Eyewitness News there are results, but in some ways the job has gotten tougher.

"We've had to make a reduction in our available hours in our service in our customer service," Levy said. That kicked in as of May because of funding cuts. The EDD phone lines are now manned only from 8 a.m. until noon.

"We've been able to answer almost as many calls as we did in that four-hour period, as we were in that (previous) nine-hour period," Levy said, "because we're able to focus our staff in the morning."

But, Eyewitness News still hears from viewers who can't get through on the EDD lines for unemployment insurance or disability.

"I've been calling at 8 all the way up to noon," Stiner said. "You just get a voice, automated voice response, saying you just have to try back later."

Last fall, Eyewitness News started hearing that exact complaint. At first, we forwarded an EDD spokeswoman's number to the viewers, then we were told to pass along the viewers' information to EDD. After a couple weeks, EDD said it couldn't take any more of the information. But, some of the first viewers did get help.

"The first time I called you, I got a check," William James told Eyewitness News. He needs disability benefits after being off work to get hand surgery in November. At that time, we suggested viewers could also try contacting state Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield. Fuller had a staff member making contact with EDD on behalf of workers.

"The only time it got better is when I got angry, and (Eyewitness News) got involved, and Fuller got involved," James said. But, as of mid-June, things had fallen apart again. James was again waiting to get information and his benefit payments.

EDD said it is making progress in responding to customers.

"Back in February, we did have a timing factor of about 69 percent, in terms of getting payments out within 14 days of receiving a properly completed form," Levy said. That rate does not meet their department standards, she said.

But, Levy says EDD is now nearly reaching their required target.

"I'm happy to say that today we're just short of that 86 percent (required level). We're at 85.28 percent," she said.

Levy had promised there would be a number of changes to improve service, but some viewers said they're still not seeing that. Eyewitness News was told the forms would be simplified, so the public could more easily and accurately fill them out. The change would reduce delays and the need to ask questions over the phone lines.

Stiner said he is not impressed with the forms he's been asked to fill out.

"They're not self-explanatory (in) what you have to do," he said.

"We're certainly working on revisions to our forms," Levy responded. She had also suggested the number of calls to EDD could be reduced, if workers would make more use of the "Ask EDD" function on the websites.

"No way. I tried, and I tried online," EDD recipient James said, adding he didn't get a response.

"We certainly do get back to people," Levy responded. "It may take another day or two than it normally would."

Another viewer got so frustrated with the inability to reach EDD about his disability claim, he drove to the EDD office in Fresno. David Bohlen had tried calling the EDD phone line.

"That was a total waste of time, because you can't get hold of anybody," he told Eyewitness News.

Bohlen suffered a stroke in March, and waited months for benefits. "It got very frustrating, especially for somebody that just had a stroke," he said. "I'm not supposed to get stressed, and I was getting to the point where I was about ready to scream."

But, he found out about the disability office in Fresno that is open to the public.

"I think it was about the second week of May when I ended up having to drive to Fresno myself and ask why I haven't received the rest of the disability money," he said.

Bohlen described the disability office in Fresno as small, and added that he got in quickly and immediately got help.

"I got there, and literally it took five minutes for them to tell me the money would be on my (benefit) card that night at midnight," he said.

Levy said customers are welcome to go to one of the 13 disability offices, but she said not that many people need to do that.

"I've checked into that," she said. "We've actually had a decrease in visitors to our Fresno office by 32 percent."

In March, EDD went to a new online system for disability claims. Bohlen also said he had tried that, with no luck.

"It goes down all the time, and you can't even access your own information," he described. Eyewitness News had asked EDD about that.

"I was never able to verify any particular outage of the system whatsoever," Levy said. She speculated there could be problems with an individual's computer system at their home.

But, Bohlen said the system simply didn't work for him.

"There's a place where it supposedly will send you a message, but I've never received a message from the EDD on it," he said.

But, EDD said the disability online system is working.

"We do find people, when they do go online, it is a much faster and more convenient process for them," Levy said.

She said the phone system has also been improved.

"Increasing the capacity of customers that may wait in the queue on calls to the toll-free number, allows more customers to remain on the phone to access either the self-serve options, or to speak with a disability insurance representative," she said.

And "self-service" is one of the options EDD recommends. Levy said the department is seeing a marked jump in customers using that for unemployment claims.

"Overall, we're seeing increased use of self-help tools, and that's exactly what we need to help get us more efficient, because we certainly aren't getting any more money or staffing to help keep up with demands," she said.

Levy said they're also seeing a lot more of the customers using the online application for unemployment insurance. Plus, EDD has an improved unemployment insurance online system going public as of late August. She said that will help customers apply without needing help from an EDD representative.

They also said the online system will reduce application errors and form errors that can result in delays.

"Some mistakes can't be made" with the online system, Levy said. "We believe we're going to be able to gain a lot of efficiency in that."

But, she also says potential funding cuts are possible for the department, and they'll know more about that soon.

"Overall our goal here is to get as efficient as we can be, and prolong any impact in our ability to pay unemployment benefits timely," Levy said.

Eyewitness News checked with Assemblywoman Shannon Grove's office, and her staff responded that they have also gotten calls from constituents about slow response from EDD. They also try to help. Assemblyman Rudy Salas was elected last November, and his staff responded they haven't heard of any problems.

But, Fuller's office said it helps on average 15 to 20 constituents every month with EDD issues. A staff member said they have the sense many have problems using the online system, and that both the public and care-providers may have questions about that process. Fuller's staff said people needing assistance can call their Bakersfield office at (661) 323-0443.

Eyewitness News also continues to hear from viewers who say the EDD system still isn't working like it should.

"I was worried about losing the house, the health thing, it was driving me crazy," Bohlen said. He's the one who drove to Fresno to get his benefits. "It's my money, and I don't know why it takes so long to get it."

"I don't know what they need to do, but they need to do something," James echoed. He's having trouble again getting his disability payments.

EDD's Levy disagreed that the system needs to be working better than it is now.

"No," she responded. "Actually we're right there in terms of meeting our timely standards."