Tricia B. says she's getting desperate.
The Livermore woman reached out to NBC Bay Area when her unemployment benefits application got hung up in the California Employment Development Department's system.
"I quit counting how many times I called after it was over 500 times." she told NBC Bay Area via an online message. "I made it through to one gentleman that said there was a problem with my ID and that I needed to speak to someone in that department. I have yet to get through to that phone number after trying now for several weeks."
Christopher Hein in Pleasant Hill shared a similar story with us in May.
"I called them every day," Hein said. "Some days, I even called over 300 times."
The NBC Bay Area Responds team hears from viewers like Tricia and Chris every day. Hundreds have contacted us since March, saying they never received benefits -- even months after applying -- and that they were never able to reach anyone with the state to make things right.
It happened to Andre Woodley Jr., too. The San Francisco software developer needed help with his application for relief after the pandemic took a toll on his business.
"I kept trying to call, kept trying to call." Woodley said. "I looked up some YouTube videos, and YouTube was like, 'You're not going to get through, and it's really hard."
Instead of giving up, Woodley was inspired to take matters into his own hands.
“I was like, you know what, there has to be an easier way to get through this thing using technology,” Woodley said.
Building a Busy Bot
Tapping his experience making apps, Woodley created a "bot" -- an automated computer program designed to handle tedious tasks -- to call EDD for him. He says the process didn't take long.
“I went ahead and just spinned up a bot," Woodley said, "I built it in like 30 minutes, launched it, and was able to connect within five minutes."
He realized he was on to something bigger when he shared the results with friends and followers on social media. Woodley founded a business, Auto Dial, to market what he calls the EDD Call Bot. For $30, you can use the bot, too.
After you sign up, you go about your business. Auto Dial will call you when a live EDD worker is ready, and connect you. Its website claims Auto Dial is guaranteed to work, or you'll get your money back.
Testimonials on the Auto Dial website say customers wait as little as two minutes. NBC Bay Area was unable to immediately reach those customers to verify their claims, but we did try the service out ourselves, using accounts provided by Woodley.
Making repeated phone calls manually, we were unable to connect with an operator. Using Auto Dial, we got to a "hold area" in about six minutes, and spoke to a live operator about 45 minutes later.
Woodley says Auto Dial has helped about 700 customers so far.
How the EDD Call Bot Works
Woodley declined to share specific details about how his bot finds and connects users to a human operator, but he did lay out the basics for us.
Woodley says he determined the EDD phone line plays two distinct recordings when someone calls. One plays if all lines are busy, and the system isn't going to take your call. A different recording plays if you're going to get through.
"The bot handles the process of constantly calling the EDD," Woodley said. "Essentially, it constantly dials the phone number. It listens to the voice message, and if it’s the 'wrong' message, it will hang up and do it again and do it again.”
The bot calls repeatedly -- possibly thousands of times -- until it hears the right message. When it does, it calls your phone, and adds you to the line.
"Once it gets an opening, we call via three-way, and then from there, we connect you to the call, and from there, you’re now connected to the ‘music section’ of the EDD, and you’re on hold there for about five to ten minutes, to speak to a rep," Woodley said.
Is it Legal?
Since the Auto Dial bot could be burning up the Employment Development Department's phone lines, we asked EDD to comment. The agency said it would get back to us, but it had not as of late Friday.
We asked Woodley if his bot is making the EDD phone situation worse. He says it isn't, because the bot is only tying up the "busy" recording that gets you nowhere.
Sometimes, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission frowns on companies using auto-dialers to make calls. We asked the FCC for its take. We are waiting for a reply.
Woodley told us his bot is legitimate, becuase it represents a real-life caller who really wants to talk with the EDD.
"Each person has a designated number that represents them, so it’s not like we’re representing some fake person," Woodley said. "When we do call the EDD, they’re connected directly with that person."
He added: "It’s the same as an agent or someone calling on your behalf, like a family member saying ‘Hey, I’m going to call [for] you,’ it’s the same as that."
The difference: the bot is dialing faster than any human ever could.
If you don't want to pay Auto Dial $30 for help reaching EDD, Woodley did offer this free bit of advice: he says the best times to call EDD are around 8:00 and 11:00 AM. He says his data show calls are most likely to go through around those times.