SCV lawmakers respond to Newsom’s plan to streamline unemployment claims

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California’s plan to address a backlog of about 1 million unemployment benefit claims could take two months to clear. Santa Clarita Valley’s state lawmakers said Friday more needs to be done sooner as families struggle to put food on the table. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday that the Employment Development Department would begin addressing the backlog by streamlining the claims process and announced the formation of a “strike team” tasked with modernizing technology systems used by the department to process unemployment claims. 

The group will be led by Government Operations Agency Secretary Yolanda Richardson and Jennifer Pahlka, co-founder of U.S. Digital Response, which offers pro bono tech support for government crisis response, according to the Governor’s Office. 

“There should be no barriers between Californians and the benefits they have earned,” said Newsom in a prepared statement. “Unprecedented demand due to job loss during this pandemic paired with an antiquated system has created an unacceptable backlog of claims. Californians deserve better, and these reform efforts aim to move the Department in that direction.”

EDD said Thursday it has processed a total of 9.3 million claims, between the regular unemployment program, extensions and separate Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, since March and has distributed $55.1 billion in benefits to workers out of a job or working reduced hours. 

State Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, and Assemblywoman Christy Smith, D-Santa Clarita, acknowledged the department is dealing with an outstanding number of claims during unprecedented times but time has run out for their constituents and Californians left unemployed by the COVID-19 crisis. 

“I am sympathetic and I understand it’s an unprecedented time but when people put faith in their government and they don’t hear from them for two months they call us for help, and it’s still another five weeks to wait. They’re frightened,” said Wilk, who urged Newsom to keep EDD phone lines and operations open and fully staffed. “(Newsom) doesn’t need a strike team, he needs to redeploy people and process the claims.” 

Smith’s staff has helped many get through the lagged system but some constituents have gone on five months without pay and unable to provide for their families, she said, adding Friday that “at this point, my constituents have missed another month’s worth of rent payment and have struggled for an additional month to put food on the table. While I appreciate that the governor is stepping in, any more time that my constituents are waiting for help is gross negligence on the part of EDD.”

The department has implemented several federal benefits programs since the onset of the pandemic, created a seven-days-a-week call center for customers and has hired thousands of staff to assist those impacted. 

The state Legislature is considering reinstating the $600 in additional weekly unemployment benefits for Californians as they are set to expire Friday with no decision from Congress on any deal for the federal program or other coronavirus stimulus aid. 

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