(CN) — Out-of-work Californians and state lawmakers unleashed a torrent of criticism and frustration Thursday in a tense hearing over the Employment Development Department’s persistent failure to deliver unemployment insurance benefits, despite promises to do better.
Jennifer Cogan was among the dozens of people who flooded the Assembly budget committee’s public comment phone line Thursday to share stories of unprecedented hardship, of depleted savings and unpaid bills and of hours spent waiting on hold only to be hung up on by unemployment department staff who claim they can’t help.
"I have heart palpitations when thinking of the emotional trauma I have endured at the hands of the dysfunction of the EDD,” Cogan said, adding that the initial sympathy she had for the overworked department "quickly eroded after my initial outreaches to EDD consisted of spending six hours on hold only after having a representative hang up on me when they did not know to answer my question.This happened multiple times. I have broken down and cried ad nauseam.”
The employment department has long been plagued with understaffing and outdated technology. But these struggles have been thrown into sharp relief by the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting economic collapse.
Assembly member Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, said, ”Many of the people in my district have had no income, no income since March. I am embarrassed, and I hope that members of the EDD are more embarrassed and that will trigger action. I don't think government has ever looked more broken than it has right now.”
The tenor of Thursday’s hearing was one of absolute disgust and vexation as lawmakers have lost all patience with the embattled department and its director Sharon Hilliard, whose answers revealed a puzzling incongruence with reality.
"Without using expletives I don't have the vocabulary to describe the frustration I feel on behalf of my constituents,” Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian, D-San Fernando Valley, said.
Assemblymember Cottie Petrie-Norris, D-Laguna Beach, grilled Hilliard over the agency’s limited call center hours and Hilliard’s reticence to offer a clear answer on why its main location is only open for a few hours in the morning.
“Why do you have case workers only working four hours a day?” she asked. “Many of the constituents in my district and around the state have had the experience of spending literally hours on the phone waiting for someone to pick up, and it's three in the afternoon they’re told ‘Sorry, our trained, actual caseworkers are only here from 8-12pm.’ That's not working around the clock and that's not acceptable customer service.”
Hilliard said the agency has one center with 8am to 8pm service, and that it is continuing to add fully trained case workers every day.
Petrie-Norris questioned the truth of this assertion, since so many of her constituents have been unable to get through during those hours. When they do, they’re either hung up on or the representative cannot answer their question. Again, she asked when the department will have full around-the-clock service.
“You’re not in the room so you’re not seeing the number of eyes rolling and exasperated number of folks in the audience as you continue to fail to answer this question,” she said.
Hilliard insisted that the department is working on combining its two call centers to provide full service from 8am to 8pm, seven days a week.
Petrie-Norris also skewered the department for call-back wait times lasting 4-6 weeks. Hilliard agreed that this is unacceptable.
“We’re actually trying to get out of the business of call backs,” she said. “That's why we’re upgrading our call center so we can have fully trained staff from 8-8, one virtual call center providing service seven days a week.”