Lawmakers call on ESD to stop treating job seekers as guilty until proven innocent

Sixty-one state lawmakers sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday calling for bigger and faster changes to the state’s backward and outdated unemployment system than he promised in his “strike team” announcement Last week.

“It is evident to us that, while so many of the EDD staff are working hard under unprecedented circumstances, EDD is an organization run by a small, inner circle of long-time bureaucrats rooted in the status quo and unable to carry out reforms, ”the letter said. “Given the few improvements in ESD during the pandemic and its overall resistance to change, others must be brought in to assess the crisis and be empowered to make changes.”

The letter called for many changes, including strengthening EDD’s customer service center, paying partial compensation to individuals while their claims are approved, and treating claimants with more respect. “There is a culture within EDD that assumes that every claimant may be guilty of fraud and must prove their innocence, rather than a desperate voter who should be treated with compassion and dignity through a truly customer-centric model of government. “, did he declare.

The the letter was the spearhead by Congressman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, and signed by 49 Democrats, 11 Republicans and one Independent.

The Newsom administration “is fully committed to ensuring that affected California workers get the benefits they have earned,” said Vicky Waters, spokesperson for the governor, in an email. “Since March, the state has processed 9.3 million claims and paid out $ 55.1 billion in benefits, and quickly implemented several federal pandemic-related programs that have helped millions of workers.” She added that EDD has redirected and hired staff to help with calls and complaints, and created a chat box and text messaging alert system for requesters.

EDD said it is reviewing the letter for a possible response.

Sharon Hilliard, director of EDD, revealed last week that around 1.13 million jobless claims had not been paid or resolved, but the authors said they believed the number was “much higher. “based on data from the US Department of Labor.

That total includes 239,000 “pending resolution” complaints, which means they just need action from EDD. Newsom said last week that “EDD is actively processing all claims under the ‘Awaiting Resolution’ category and plans to clear the backlog of actionable claims by the end of September.”

An additional 889,000 people could be eligible with additional information provided by applicants. This includes around 587,000 who did not go online to certify that they are eligible for their conditionally granted benefits and 302,000 who did not provide information on their salary claim. EDD noted in a graph footnote last week that “due to unprecedented demand and workload” some of those 302,000 applicants “may not have been able to contact EDD to provide the necessary documents. Applicants may have submitted information and documents that have not been identified as actionable workload items. “

Lawmakers said they “wanted a commitment from you to clear the backlog, ideally at an earlier date,” pointing out that the end of September will be more than six months after the state imposed a home stay.

Chiu spokeswoman Jennifer Kwart said the authors wanted the 239,000 claims paid by the end of September. For the other 889,000, “There must be a plan on how to resolve them, especially for this group of 302,000. EDD could very well have the information it needs from these people” to pay the claims.

Newsom said last week it was forming a “strike team” backed by the California Department of Technology and the Office of Digital Innovation to find ways to transform unemployment insurance into the digital age. “Within 45 days, the strike team will provide a roadmap that outlines short, medium and long term recommendations and solutions,” he said.

Lawmakers said they wanted the strike team to also include “opinion leaders and employees from different levels of the EDD organization whose contribution has not been valued” and technology experts. from the private sector. They also said: “Changing the practices and culture of ESD will require a sustained effort of over 45 days on the part of the ESD strike team, as well as genuine authority to overthrow the crisis. EDD leadership, which continued to impede change. “

Specifically, lawmakers called for the following improvements:

• Provide many claimants with initial or partial benefits while ESD reviews their claim. On March 20, Labor Secretary Julie Su EDD led pay claims before making a final decision on eligibility. During a hearing of the assembly sub-committee Last week, Hilliard said the Federal Department of Labor was questioning the directive. “We don’t believe this to be true, and instead, is indicative of ESD’s trend toward overly restrictive interpretations of eligibility requirements,” the letter said.

• Immediately strengthen the customer support line (800-300-5616) where agents can review an individual’s complaint and resolve complex issues. It is only open four hours in the morning on weekdays and has 100 agents. EDD says it takes six months to train these people.

EDD opened a second phone line this year (833-978-2511) which operates 8 am-8pm seven days a week, but these agents “will not have access to your claim or payment information,” EDD says. on its website. EDD says it has around 1,100 people responding to both of these lines, but plans to have 2,600 by the end of August and provide “more in-depth training and resources” so staff can respond to. more complex issues.

• Consolidate the “huge amount of information” on the ESD website and make it user-friendly.

• Assign an ESD staff member to each legislative office.

• Resolve identity verification bottlenecks.

• Rephrase the questions and directly incorporate more information into the bi-monthly certification forms so that applicants do not respond incorrectly and compromise benefits.

• Train staff to better treat employees who may have been wrongly classified as independent contractors under AB5.

• Accelerate EDD’s 11-year technology modernization program, now in its fourth year, and consider moving to a cloud-based system.

• Hold Deloitte and other external suppliers more accountable.

Kathleen Pender is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @kathpender

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