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‘Devastated’: Jobless Californians Still Face Long Waits for Benefits

Written by Matthew KupferPublished May 25, 2023 • 5:30am
A pedestrian passes the Employment Development Department office in San Francisco. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

When Roni Desai gave birth to a son in late November, it was a stressful time. 

The Oakland tech employee was diagnosed with preeclampsia and wound up getting induced early. She had to take care of a newborn baby and her 4-year-old daughter. By her own admission, she wasn’t paying attention to much else.

But then she realized she had not received her pregnancy short-term disability or maternity leave payments. As she tried to contact the Employment Development Department (EDD)—the California agency that administers unemployment, disability and parental leave payments—she made a common discovery: There seemed to be no way to reach EDD by phone.

When she called the EDD hotline, the automated system would usually inform her that there were too many people on hold and kick her off. Finally, Desai managed to get through to an operator for a different EDD benefits program.

“She was like, ‘I can’t help you. We’re not even in the same building. It’s a different office. I can’t help connect you,’” Desai said.

“What am I supposed to do?” she asked.

“You just have to keep calling,” Desai recalls the operator telling her.

In the wake of the Covid pandemic shutdown, the number of unemployment claims skyrocketed. EDD found itself unable to keep up. In April 2020, the agency could only answer 1% of calls. By December, it had a backlog of around 685,700 claims.

Thousands of claimants had to wait more than 21 days for benefits payments. And the agency fell victim to $20 billion worth of fraud—in some cases, from claimants with obviously false or scatological names.

But Desai wasn’t trying to get her benefits at the peak of the pandemic. This was November and December 2022, nearly three years after Covid shut down the United States.

Her predicament is indicative of a larger issue with EDD: The agency claims to have learned from the pandemic and implemented changes to make sure its Covid-era problems don’t recur. But people who have recently tangled with it say problems persist to this day.

Still Not Easy

According to EDD’s own statistics, things just keep getting better.

The agency’s online dashboard says there are just over 6,500 cases awaiting EDD action for more than 21 days, a significant improvement over the backlog at the pandemic's peak.

Currently, the wait time to speak to a call center agent is roughly 12 minutes, an EDD spokesperson said in a message. At the height of the pandemic, that wait time was closer to 28 minutes—a figure the agency admits may not be accurate because it upped its staff during that period.

“Bigger picture, we incorporated the lessons learned from the pandemic and are emerging stronger and better than before,” an EDD spokesperson said by email.

A composite image shows Roni Desai with her children, Ryan, left, and, Ria, right. | Courtesy Roni Desai

Still, the problems aren’t all solved.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, who represents San Francisco and parts of San Mateo, said that his constituents are still struggling to reach EDD by phone. They often turn to his office when they can’t get through.

Wiener is unsure what is causing the persistent problems but suggests that EDD’s systems are not as modern as they should be.

“We’re happy to help people, and we have a good success rate at solving EDD problems, but it’s unfortunate that people have to call their state senator,” he said.

Honey Mahogany says she’s still seeing a lot of EDD cases—and getting through to the agency by phone is among the most persistent problems.

A former candidate for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, she now serves as district director for Assemblymember Matt Haney, who represents eastern San Francisco. 

Mahogany stresses that trouble with EDD is not just a frustration for people; it can also have serious consequences.

“When people can’t access that safety net, those emergency funds, it can lead to situations when they end up homeless or can’t feed their families,” she said. “Those are really serious consequences of people not being able to access unemployment.”

But Assemblymember Phil Ting, who represents western San Francisco, has seen a change. His office is now mostly helping constituents with complex cases that involve overpayment of benefits or stolen identities.

“Because such cases are more complicated, the department’s antiquated computer system or a simple call to the 800 number can’t often resolve them,” Ting said in a message. “That’s usually when we’re asked to step in.”

Post-Pandemic Clawback?

That shift is also visible to George Warner, director of the Wage Protection Program at Legal Aid at Work.

After the chaos of the last three years, EDD is now trying to claw back benefits it says were received in error and through fraud.

But the agency often gets it wrong, Warner said.

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

He’s seen cases where people unsuccessfully tried to call EDD multiple times and find out whether they were eligible. Eventually, they just applied and were approved. Later, EDD said the claimants misled them and demanded the money back.

In one case, a woman’s state tax refund was reduced because the EDD said she was improperly overpaid more than $10,000 in benefits.

“Losing a $10,000 tax refund is devastating. That’s months of rent, food for your kids and basic necessities,” Warner said. “I’ve talked to clients who got credit card debt because of this, who have struggled to pay bills.”

If the EDD says your benefits were overpaid, you can and should always appeal, he said. In a report released in August, the California Legislative Analyst’s Office found that more than half of EDD denials are overturned on appeal, a figure far worse than in other states.

(An EDD spokesperson disputed the accuracy of that figure.)

“It’s hard to overstate how consequential these decisions can be for Californians,” Warner said. “To my mind, that makes it all the more egregious how frequently they’re wrong.”

Not Everyone Is So Lucky

The consequences of problems with EDD weigh heavily on Desai, who struggled to receive payments after giving birth in November.

After failing to get through to EDD by phone and solve her problems for over two weeks, she turned to the office of State Assemblymember Mia Bonta to seek help. The results were nearly instantaneous: She got her payments.

But she realizes she is luckier than most. The delayed benefits never prevented her from paying rent or feeding her children.

“The stress of having a baby, being sleep deprived, recovering from childbirth—there are a thousand other things to worry about,” Desai said. “And on top of that, worrying about where your money is and how to get paid should not be one of them.”

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