The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent government shutdowns have decimated our state economy. Adding insult to injury is the failure of the Employment Development Department (the agency that manages unemployment insurance claims) to deliver on nearly every metric imaginable when it comes to getting people the money they deserve.
Since March of this year, more than 12 million Californians have had no other choice but to apply for unemployment – 1.6 million of whom are still waiting to receive their unemployment benefits. Of those 12-plus million applicants, 8.5 million Californians turned to EDD for the first time in their lives while 147,000 Californians filed for unemployment for the second time since the pandemic began due to the governor’s on-again off-again decision to reopen the economy. With more than 25% of Californians at the mercy of a floundering state agency, every day counts when addressing the problem at hand.
The governor’s solution: Just wait a little while longer.
Sept. 14 marked the 194th day of the declared state of emergency as well as the 45-day deadline set by the governor for his EDD “strike team” to come up with short-, medium- and long-term plans to fix the broken agency. That date came and went with no report. Five days later, in the dead of night, the report was released and the results were embarrassingly pointed at mismanagement by the administration.
The report reeked of a backlog of 1.6 million unresolved claims not expected to be cleared until late January of next year. Antiquated tech that has plagued the department since before the great recession of 2009, a negative analysis of the governor’s EDD massive new hire scheme and, among more than 100 other recommendations, a recommendation to suspend acceptance of new unemployment claims for a two-week period as they continue to rake in upwards of 10,000 new claims a day.
While this report should have been done months (maybe even years) ago, it is truly a step in the right direction. With this knowledge as well as that gained from the approved audit that is to begin this month we will be better prepared to face future emergencies, I pray nowhere on the scale of the one we are currently facing.
But honestly, no report is going to clear the backlog, and it sure isn’t going to put food on the table for people who have been waiting for help. The hollow assurance of “just wait a little while longer” from the very administration that imposed such a harsh economic shutdown and ignored for months the calls by legislators like myself to fix the problems at EDD, is a bitter pill to swallow.
The governor’s sleight of hand is especially frustrating as the administration had ignored bipartisan legislative requests to address the problems for months. Back in early April, I, along with my colleagues had begun sending letters warning the governor of problems. Later we requested an audit of the EDD, which was initially denied, followed by my request with Sen. Melissa Hurtado to staff the agency 24/7 until the backlog was cleared. Legislators from all sides of the political spectrum were sounding the alarm. We, after all, are the line of first defense. It is our offices that are managing more than 16,100 open cases of rightfully distraught constituents who have been waiting – not days, not weeks, but months to receive an answer from EDD. My office alone has opened nearly 1,000 constituent case files since the pandemic started, most of which are to help people deal with the EDD.
Bureaucratic incompetency and a perpetual dragging of the feet have been the cause of immeasurable suffering. For many of our unemployed family members, neighbors and friends, it has been a death march into economic ruin. Through no fault of their own they have lost their jobs and been forced to burn through their savings while the EDD, the supposed safety net for out-of-work Californians, tries in vain to get its act together. That’s just not good enough.
The governor can blame the pandemic, he can blame the massive surge in unemployment applications and the antiquated tech the department has been working with for the past decade, but none of these scapegoats answer the real questions. Why was fixing the known dysfunctions with the EDD not on the radar of this governor or the last one? Why, when the unemployment numbers started surging, did fixing the EDD not become a priority? Why did we have to wait four months for the administration to begin to even consider the shortcomings of an agency that has shown little improvement in processing claims since 2002? Why does any necessary action to address the pandemic, aside from acquiring failed PPE contracts, have to wait?
It’s been more than 200 days since Gov. Newsom first declared a state of emergency in California, and in addition to navigating a pandemic, economic uncertainty and now wildfires, we are still waiting for answers.
In the meantime, I will continue to do everything I can to assist you during these troubling times; we will meet this moment together. My office and I have been working tirelessly to help the community of the 21st Senate District access the help they need by bridging the gap between the people and the state. If you or anyone you know is struggling to get their unemployment insurance claim processed, give my office a call. We are ready to help you with any state agency, local issue or connection to services.
Follow me on social media (@ScottWilkCA) for updates on resources and other helpful information and together we will weather this storm.
Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, represents the 21st Senate District, which encompasses the Antelope, Santa Clarita and Victor valleys.