California’s unemployment agency is not answering 60% of the calls it receives for help as the overwhelmed department struggles to work through a backlog of more than 1 million pending claims five months into the pandemic.
Employment Development Department Director Sharon Hilliard told a panel of frustrated state lawmakers on Monday that the agency is on pace to have 3,700 people working in its call center by January, up from the 350 employees prior to the pandemic.
Hilliard indicated the agency was not prepared to handle the unprecedented surge in unemployment claims prompted by the coronavirus. She said the industry standard is to answer about 80% of calls, but even before the pandemic hit, when California’s booming economy led to record low unemployment, the agency was only answering 54% of calls.
“I think we were all surprised to see that number,” said Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris, a Democrat from Laguna Beach. “That raised a big red flag for me.”
Hilliard blamed low funding for the problem
“With record low unemployment comes record low staffing levels. Our funding decreases with the unemployment rate,” Hilliard said. “It’s shameful. Nationally, none of the states are in good shape when it comes to answering calls.”
California has processed more than 10.6 million unemployment claims since March, paying $67 billion in benefits. Hilliard said Monday those claims involve about 6 million people. She told lawmakers the state had just over 1 million pending claims as of last week.
In April, when the agency was receiving about 14 million calls a week, the state was only answering a dismal 2% of calls. Now, the agency gets about 6.7 million calls a week and answers 40%.
“We’ve been improving every single month,” Hilliard said. “I’m very excited about that.”
Hilliard said improvements are coming next month, including a partnership with San Francisco-based DocuSign to let people submit employment documents electronically, which she hopes will speed up the process.
The agency is also working with a “strike team” appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to come up with recommendations on improving the system. It’s led by Yolanda Richardson, secretary of the Government Operations Agency.
“It isn’t as simple as getting new software loaded or more people answering the phones,” Richardson said.
Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian, a Democrat from North Hollywood, questioned why the agency didn’t learn lessons from the Great Recession a decade ago, the last time the state saw huge numbers of people filing for unemployment benefits.
Hilliard said the agency has made great strides since then, noting “the only reason we are surviving is everything we had done in the last 10 years.”
“Were we ready to be hit by a pandemic? No. But who was?” she said. “What we’ve been able to accomplish has been quite incredible. But it’s not good enough. We know that.”