The Covid emergency and subsequent business shutdowns brought its own crisis to California’s Employment Development Department (EDD). Faced with overwhelming unemployment claims which have resulted in long waits for people out of work to get their payments and clear indications of fraud in the claims process, the EDD has not handled the circumstances well.
Now the EDD plans to do a reset while closing down the opportunity for new applications until October 5, meanwhile over a million-and-a-half workers have yet to receive their unemployment insurance.
It’s a well-established principle in Politics 101 to deliver troublesome political news on a Friday night when the politician or entity delivering the news hopes the reaction is more or less that ‘there is nothing to see here.’ Dumping a news story on a Saturday night increases the skeptic meter to “what are they trying to hide.” (Old-timers will recall the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” in which President Richard Nixon fired Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox while the Attorney General and Assistant Attorney General resigned for refusing to carry out the order.)
So it is with the Saturday night release of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Strike Team report on the deficiencies at the Employment Development Department and the failure to keep up with unemployment payouts to needy workers humbled by the coronavirus outbreak that stole so many jobs.
Legislative critics pounced on the Saturday report dump with a leading critic, Assemlymember Jim Patterson, saying the report’s finding reflects a “huge failure” at the EDD, and that the fixes are merely a “fire drill” to attempt to right the ship. While the report makes recommendations to make things better for California workers and improve the service at the EDD, Patterson’s concern and skepticism was clear at a press briefing through his repeated use of the phrase, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
The Strike Teams assessment of the EDD performance during the strain of the pandemic and recommendations for fixes came in a 109-page report. The report states that the service was overwhelmed because of the circumstances related to the virus lockdown. While 2019 saw about 2,400 Unemployment Insurance claims a day, currently the number is running four times as high, daily. The responsibility of dealing with the crush has taxed old computer technology at the EDD.
The use of old technology was a sore point for Patterson who said the EDD has ignored past audits and recommendations. This criticism has been levied at all state agencies over the years.
In the state home to the Silicon Valley and technological innovation, California public offices are running on Model T-type computers instead of zooming around in Teslas.
The computer situation at the EDD and elsewhere in the California government should particularly irk Gov. Newsom who wrote a book titled, Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government.
Patterson worried that to fix the EDD backlog problem, new software will just be added on to old technology which will not be able to deal with the payment backlog and fraud. The technological issue tied into a larger point for Patterson who feared that the EDD would use the task force recommendations to simply build the government agency in the same old way—a “stodgy, bureaucratic, monopolistic” model.
Patterson was also sharply critical of the EDD Strike Team report because it ducked the fraud issue. The EDD claimed the Strike Team was not authorized to consider the fraud issue.
What the Strike Team did consider is that only 1 out of 1,000 people are getting through to the EDD’s call center to get help with their claims. The call center was only opened in the morning and can’t possibly respond to the over 6 million calls a month.
Fixes reported by the Strike Team include implementing a new ID system during the two-week shutdown, adding outbound calls to answer citizens questions instead of just a call-in system, creating new online accessibility to register claims, and dealing immediately with the oldest claims.
Whether the changes are enough to mollify the public stewing over the EDD response remains to be seen. The larger overhaul of the system, especially the technology, is in order. The technology concern is raised by both the Strike Team and EDD critics. The technology issue would be a good place to remake a modern EDD, but such a reform is not the first thing to happen. Dealing with the overdue unemployment insurance claims must come first.