SACRAMENTO — They’re finally answering phones at California’s beleaguered unemployment benefits agency.
Four months ago, 9 out of 10 callers couldn’t reach a live staffer at the Employment Development Department, according to official call logs. The system still was robotically hanging up on 80% of frustrated callers as recently as mid-February.
But in March, EDD phone staffers suddenly picked up the pace, responding to a Feb. 7 call for action from the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown. At the same time, the state committed more money and manpower to customer service, and Brown named a new executive director.
As a result, the department is reporting that the hang-up rate has plummeted. During the week that ended March 1, only 38% of calls got automatically disconnected. It dropped again to 18% a week later and to 5% for the week that ended March 15, the most recent figure available.
The dramatic improvement caught even EDD’s harshest critics by surprise.
“If these impressive results hold up — and we hope they do — the lesson is clear,” said Maurice Emsellem, co-policy director of the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for the unemployed and working poor. “What’s required is strong leadership at the top and dedicated resources to get the job done at EDD…. We’re hopeful that these latest results foreshadow lasting, sustained progress.”
There is still work to be done, both the administration and EDD’s critics concede. The department currently is being audited for the way it decides claims eligibility. Its computer system still is bedeviled by a small number of glitches, and a call-back system for claimants’ inquiries hasn’t been installed.
“Further work is necessary to sustain improvements and build upon them in the months ahead,” said Brown’s secretary of labor and workforce development, David Lanier.
How did state officials achieve such a quick turnaround? On the surface, the answer seems quite simple: “We put more people on the phones…. Of course, they’re going to answer more phone calls,” said Sabrina Reed, EDD’s deputy director for unemployment insurance.
EDD’s phone crew, which answers calls only from 8 a.m. to noon on weekdays, doubled to 300 from a low of 150 late last year, she said.
The extra people, she said, were authorized by Lanier, who directed the agency to fix “unacceptable levels of payment delays and unanswered phone calls.” Lanier also approved the hiring of 280 new people, the retention of 250 part-time workers and overtime pay to speed up and streamline claims processing and handling of calls.
That included clearing the remnants of a backlog caused by a computer glitch that delayed payment of jobless benefits to as many as 150,000 claimants last fall.