‘Broken' and ‘a Failure': CA Lawmakers Rip Unemployment Agency

State legislators had harsh words for the California Employment Development Department, as complaints continue over unpaid unemployment benefit claims.

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Just minutes into a California Legislature hearing on the state's unemployment agency, Assemblymember David Chiu went on the offensive.

"EDD has been failing California," the San Francisco Democrat said. "Because of EDD's failures, our constituents are depleting their life savings, going into extreme debt, and having trouble paying rent and putting food on the table."

Seconds later, Chiu was interrupted by an error message coming from the hearing's calling conference software, unexpectedly announcing that the call was ending.

"That's kind of like an EDD experience," Chiu said.

Assemblymember David Chiu, (D) San Francisco, gave remarks on his dissatisfaction with EDD in a legislative hearing on Thursday. (Photo credit: California State Legislature)

The longtime Assembly member was referring to the flood of complaints to his office from unemployment applicants, who say the Employment Development Department is practically impossible to reach by phone. NBC Bay Area has also seen hundreds of similar complaints from our viewers.

Cottie Petrie-Norris, a Democrat representing parts of Orange County, concurred with Chiu.

"Every day, my colleagues and I hear from thousands of Californians who are desperate -- in dire straits," she said. "This desperation is being met by a disinterested bureaucracy who is failing to answer the phones, reply to emails, or offer even the most basic help to these desperate Californians."

"I don't think government has [ever] looked more broken than it does right now," said Palmdale Republican Tom Lackey. "When they do engage in the process, they get shunned -- that's what they feel like."

Those remarks opened a lengthy hearing in the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on State Administration, the latest in a series of public rebukes of EDD by state leaders.

Earlier on Thursday, the EDD released its weekly jobless claims numbers, touting $55 billion in benefits paid since march, out of 9.3 million claims. But alongside those numbers, testimony in the hearing turned to the tens of thousands of Californians whose unemployment applications have gotten stuck in the system, with nothing paid in spite of eligibility.

Sharon Hilliard, Director of EDD, told lawmakers the "vast majority" of claims have been paid.

"Of the six million unique claimants who have applied for benefits since March 8, 80%, or 4.8 million people, have received payment," Hilliard said.

But Hilliard said nearly a quarter-million applicants need what she described as "manually intensive" assistance, leading to delays of many months in getting claims processed.

"The remaining 239,000 claimants are awaiting resolution on the part of EDD, which represents four percent of the overall claimants," she said.

Hilliard said it could still take months to get caught up on paying those claims.

"We are working to [resolve] and continue to prioritize these claims, based on when the applicant originally applied," Hilliard said. "We anticipate completing the current actionable items through June by the end of September."

Hilliard told lawmakers her agency is still working to hire and train more staff, and to restructure its offices to more efficiently process claims.

"EDD sincerely regrets any payment delays experienced by our customers," she said.

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