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Rampant dysfunction in state agency kicks Californians when they’re down

Tina Reggio holds her son Charlie at their home in San Francisco. After giving birth, Reggio had a difficult time navigating California’s Employment Development Department. | Shelby Knowles for The Standard

Last year, Tina Reggio was struggling. She had just given birth to her first child and was suffering from severe postpartum depression.

Then another problem showed up: California’s Employment Development Department.

The agency—widely known by its acronym EDD—told Reggio it needed more information to process her application for paid family leave. That required calling them by phone. 

Easier said than done. 

Since the Covid pandemic, getting through to an EDD employee on the agency’s numerous phone lines has become nearly impossible. But for many vulnerable Californians, it’s the only way to get benefits they desperately need.

“I called repeatedly, multiple times a day, in the morning, in the afternoon, right when it opens, right when they were closing, at lunchtime—whenever I had a free moment, I was calling them,” Reggio said.

Neither Reggio nor her husband ever got through, and EDD eventually denied her claim. She only received her paid family leave after submitting a written appeal.

Tina Reggio and Alex Emslie hold their son Charlie at their home in San Francisco on March 8, 2023. | Shelby Knowles for The Standard

Reggio’s excruciating struggle with EDD—which came at time when she says she was “hardly able to function”—isn’t a rarity.

The agency, which is also responsible for unemployment and disability insurance, is plagued with internal dysfunction and delays. Navigating the labyrinthine benefits system is so difficult that people turn to online forums and pay for private dialing services to help get through to a human being. Others ask their state legislators for help.

When The Standard called EDD’s paid family leave hotline, it was given the boot: “We're sorry. The maximum number of callers waiting to speak to a representative has been reached. Please call again," a recorded message said.

For Reggio, her experience left her worried for others: She’s an immigration attorney who regularly works with people from Central America who have received asylum in the U.S. Some of them are eligible for these benefits but don’t speak English or sometimes even Spanish.

A pedestrian passes by California’s Employment Development Department at 745 Franklin St. in San Francisco. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

“I just felt like: If I can’t figure this out, how are my clients figuring this out?” Reggio said.

In a statement, EDD said it had faced a large number of disability filings in 2022, which delayed claim processing

“EDD is focused on improving the customer experience of all of our claimants,” the agency said. “The department is actively working to make improvements to our various customer service channels.”

Broken System

It isn’t just people like Reggio concluding that EDD is broken. In recent years, the agency has faced a barrage of blistering criticism in the halls of government.

In a January 2021 report, California’s state auditor blasted the agency for its failures during the Covid pandemic.

“Although it would be unreasonable to have expected a flawless response to such an historic event, EDD’s inefficient processes and lack of advanced planning led to significant delays in its payment of [unemployment insurance] claims,” the report said.

As pandemic-related calls surged in April, EDD answered less than 1% of the calls it received. It quadrupled its call center staff to 5,600 people, but that “only marginally improved the percentage of calls [EDD] answered,” according to the audit.

The Employment Development Department (EDD) office is located at 745 Franklin St. in San Francisco. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

“Despite knowing for years that it had problems with call center performance, EDD has not yet adopted best practices for managing the call center, leaving it ill prepared to assist Californians effectively,” auditor Elaine Howle concluded.

By December 2020, EDD had a backlog of around 685,700 claims. Internal dysfunction forced hundreds of thousands of claimants to wait longer than 21 days—EDD’s timeframe for processing a claim—to receive their benefits payments.

In March 2020, EDD suspended the requirement that unemployment claimants prove their eligibility. While that may have helped speed the processing of claims, it put some recipients at risk of having to repay their benefits, the auditor’s report found. Last month, EDD agreed not to make Californians who received unemployment overpayments in good faith pay back the money.

Tina Reggio holds her son Charlie at their home in San Francisco. | Shelby Knowles for The Standard

Tasked with administering pandemic unemployment assistance, the agency also fell victim to over $20 billion worth of fraud. Unemployment fraud was so rampant that a Tennessee rapper even bragged about it in a music video.

In another report released in August, the California Legislature attacked the unemployment insurance program for its failures during the past two economic downturns.

Those issues trace back to the program’s basic design, which prioritizes preventing fraud and keeping costs low over making sure eligible workers can easily access their benefits, the Legislature’s policy advisory office wrote.

EDD’s approach leads to too many denials, over half of which were overturned on appeal. Outside California, less than a quarter of denials are overturned, the report concluded.

Well-Known Problem

California Assemblymember Phil Ting, who represents western San Francisco, knows these issues well.

During the early days of the pandemic, his staff found themselves devoting a majority of their time managing EDD cases. Since then, they’ve helped over 2,000 constituents navigate the system—“an enormous number and an enormous amount of time [spent],” he said.

California Assemblymember Phil Ting | Olivia Mayeda/The Standard

The situation got so bad that he and some other assemblymembers asked for an EDD staff person to be embedded in their offices to help handle constituent cases. Their request was granted.

“We felt like we became EDD employees by extension,” Ting said.

Today, as the pandemic wanes, EDD caseloads are much lower. But people still have a difficult time getting through on the phones. Sometimes, when constituents turn to Ting’s office, the only help they need is reaching someone.

For constituents, delays in receiving benefits can be catastrophic.

“When you can’t get your unemployment, you can’t eat or you’re maxing out your credit cards,” Ting said. “It’s a horrifying feeling.”

As far as he can tell, the issue at EDD is that it is struggling to hire people. But the agency’s lack of preparedness for Covid led the California Assembly to pass legislation in 2021 requiring it to come up with a plan for a future recession.

More Than Phone Problems

For Californians who have struggled with the EDD bureaucracy, the problems don’t end with the phone lines. And they didn’t begin with the pandemic.

When social worker Maryam Moody gave birth to her first child in 2016, she discovered that her legal name, which consists of a double first name, was too long for EDD’s online system. That made online filing an impossibility.

The California Employment Development Department office at 745 Franklin St. in San Francisco | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

Instead, she needed to get a paper claim form. But she couldn’t simply print that form out; she had to call the EDD line and order one. After two hours on hold, Moody got through. 

“It was a lot easier then than now,” she said.

There is another option to get the form: You can pick it up at a Disability Insurance Office. But there are only sixteen across the state. And not all of them stock the form, Moody said.

To this day, she keeps a spare in her files in case she ever needs disability insurance.

In a statement, EDD said that these forms can be requested on their website or by phone without speaking to a representative. 

EDD is “working on system improvements that will remove character limits for claimant names in the future,” the agency said. 

Moody worries for people like the patients she sees at multiple San Francisco hospitals, some of whom don’t speak English or are dealing with serious illnesses: How can they possibly navigate this system?

For Reggio, the immigration attorney who had to battle EDD while struggling with postpartum depression, the problems at the agency “make no sense.”

“I almost gave up at times,” she said. “We’re eligible for this. We pay into this. But the process—it was so frustrating.”