State workers walked away from their phones, ignored important mail from veterans, and were essentially paid to do nothing, according to a report from Gov. Gavin Newsom's office.
The 103-page report, issued by an Employment Development Department Strike team, prompted a two-week pause by EDD in processing new unemployment applications. The agency called the temporary halt a "reset" to address issues raised in the report, and work on a backlog of some 600,000 unemployment insurance claims.
The report comes some six months after EDD saw an unprecedented surge in job loss claims, triggered by the pandemic. Almost immediately after California counties began to shut down businesses and issue shelter-in-place orders, NBC Bay Area received a surge of complaints from workers, telling us they were unable to reach anyone at EDD to file an unemployment claim.
"I called them every day," said Christopher Hein, a Pleasant Hill worker. "Some days, I even called over 300 times."
Rudy Salazar, who runs an unemployment support group on Facebook, had a similar experience.
"Three-hundred calls just to get through to someone on the other end of the line," Salazar said.
"We moved 1,340 new people to work the phones; to improve the system," Gov. Newsom said.
But throughout the summer, some Californians still couldn't get paid. Now, we know why.
A Scathing Report
This new review by the strike team found many of EDD's new hires lacked the training to actually help laid-off workers over the phone. Those operators only resolved 1.4 percent of calls, the strike team said.
"Hiring more staff that cannot handle the actual reasons people are calling will improve the calls answered statistic but will have no impact on resolving issues with claims," the team wrote in its report.
Some existing staffers were even less helpful. When EDD employees at one call center started working from home, the report says "...they stopped answering the phones."
The strike team said EDD hired 515 new workers to do "recomputation" work in the background, but because so few claims are getting through and so few EDD workers have adequate training, "There is no work for the 515 new recomputation employees to complete."
Even before the strike team's report was made public, lawmakers like Assemblymember Rudy Salas were calling for an emergency audit of EDD. Salas, who chairs the Joint Committee on Legislative Audit, initiated the audit shortly before the strike team's report was made public.
"We need some transparency," Salas told NBC Bay Area. "We need some accountability."
NBC Bay Area asked the Kern County Democrat how hiring state workers to do nothing helps Californians get their unemployment benefits.
"If you’re hiring people just to hire people who aren’t helping somebody over at EDD, that makes no sense to me at all," Salas said.
NBC Bay Area asked EDD how much it's paying those 515 workers noted in the report for having "no work". We did not get a response. However, it's likely they're being paid at least $3,000 per month. That's the salary posted for the lowest-paid position currently available to handle unemployment claims.
Stacks of Misdirected, Unanswered Mail
The report also points out shortfalls in addressing attempted fraud. As we reported in early September, some Californians are receiving dozens or even hundreds of letters from EDD, addressed to multiple people, all in the same mailbox. Some even appear to have unemployment benefit debit cards inside.
The envelopes are suspected to be organized identity theft, exploiting a weakness in EDD's antiquated systems. But private homes aren't the only place EDD mail is piling up.
The report says its auditors visited EDD offices, and "In every office, we saw significant unopened mail."
That's a huge red flag, because many workers who apply online are required to mail documents like pay stubs to EDD before they can collect benefits.
Other workers, including veterans who recently left the military, are required to apply for unemployment insurance on paper forms.
We asked Assemblymember Salas what EDD is doing, if not answering the phone or reading the mail.
"That’s exactly why we need an independent state audit, to look at some of the things that were identified," Salas said. "If people weren’t answering the phone and that’s their job, what’s going on there? We need people there who are answering the phone and helping Californians."
Salas said the state auditor will conduct a review of EDD operations. We asked the auditor's office for a timeline, but we did not get a response.
You can help the auditor. If you know about problems inside EDD, you can call the whistleblower hotline at 800-952-5665. You can also contact the auditor's office at its website.
You can also share tips with us, by calling 888-996-8477, or via this online contact form.