Since March, California’s Employment Development Department, or EDD, has encountered 10.6 million claims amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to EDD spokesperson Barry White.
The high number of claims and administrative issues within the EDD has caused a large backlog in unemployment insurance disbursements, according to Legal Aid at Work attorney George Warner.
“The EDD, like many unemployment insurance agencies across the country, has been seriously underfunded for the last decades and does not have infrastructure in place to allow people to navigate the unemployment system,” Warner said.
In a July 29 press release, California Gov. Gavin Newsom called for the EDD to eliminate the disbursement backlog by the end of September and announced multiple reforms for the EDD, including a strikeforce intended to modernize technology programs.
Warner noted that the agency also faces “language access issues,” as it does not offer materials in a variety of languages.
“I think even for people who are fluent in English, those people will have trouble understanding what the EDD is saying to them and the documents because (they) are written in highly technical legalese,” Warner said. “Frankly, there are just design issues with the form, where they are presented in a way that is difficult to read for the average user.”
These administrative issues are not felt by all unemployment insurance applicants, as was the case with Rodeo resident Sasha Panyanouvong, a former employee at Mr. Mopps’, which is a toy store in Berkeley. She applied for unemployment insurance in early March and said the process went well, despite some of her friends having a more difficult time.
Panyanouvong noted that she may have had a smoother process because she applied early in the pandemic.
“Most of it was understandable,” Panyanouvong said about the documents. “Other parts would be difficult for someone who isn’t fluent in English or who doesn’t understand legal terms.”
Some reforms have been made within the EDD, according to White. In order to improve accessibility, the agency has created a more efficient call routing system to connect people to the appropriate representative, and it has approved 4,900 staff for hire of the 5,300 new staff being added throughout the state.
Additional reform is needed, according to state Assemblymember Buffy Wicks.
“It is clear that EDD staffers are working hard under unprecedented circumstances. However, EDD is an organization rooted in the status quo and unable to drive reform,” Wicks alleged in an email.
Wicks added that the EDD needs to be more transparent by creating a dashboard that showcases the number of unresolved claims. Wicks also suggested that the EDD expand its hours of operation and implement automatic callbacks.
When filing a claim, Wicks suggested that people call their representatives for help, while Warner suggested persistence.
“Unfortunately, (there are) a lot of things that can go wrong,” Warner said. “I encourage people to document all their attempts and to reach out by mail.”
To better understand the unemployment insurance claims process, White said individuals should use the EDD online overview and video guides provided on the EDD’s website. According to Warner, the EDD’s website is only in English and Spanish, which can exclude people who do not speak either language.
The EDD is attempting to eliminate the backlog by September as advocated by individuals such as Wicks, White added.
“We are fully committed to ensuring California workers that have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic get the benefits they are eligible to receive,” White said. “Our agency is working hard to address the unacceptable backlog of unpaid unemployment insurance claims by no later than the end of September.”