California senators heard last week from officials with the Employment Development Department and Bank of America over the state’s unemployment benefits processing, for which lawmakers urged immediate improvements.
“I want to emphasize the importance of fixing this right now. We need accountability, we need structural reforms, but this is an urgent and immediate issue for California’s unemployed workers,” said Sen. Dave Min, D-Irvine, during a hearing. “We can’t just be talking about structural reforms, we have to fix it as soon as possible, now.”
Much like Min and other state lawmakers, Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, has heard from concerned constituents about issues with not being able to access their benefits or receive the aid they need.
“When I walked into my office this morning, my legislative director was on the phone with a constituent who had her account frozen and is now living in her car,” Wilk said following the hearing. “She can’t get her benefits, so when the EDD director said that she doesn’t expect improvements until October 2021, that’s hard to hear.”
Last week, a Senate budget subcommittee, of which Wilk is a member, asked why recommendations from state audits to improve EDD’s unemployment processing have not yet been implemented. The same question was raised during a previous hearing the week before, held by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee and the Assembly Insurance Committee.
EDD Director Rita Saenz said during the Senate hearing that the department’s two primary goals are to “get employment benefits as quickly as possible into the hands of eligible Californians and stop fraud before it enters the system.”
The department hopes to make a series of changes to achieve its goals, according to Saenz, such as improving staff training and expanding language access. She added that EDD has already created a command center division to manage call center recommendations and solutions. Between May and October, the department will develop “tools and processes to collect first-call resolution data” to learn how effective the call center has become, she said.
“But make no mistake, we are not waiting to make improvements until that time,” said Saenz. “We are hiring more than 900 staff this month.”
Within the next nine months, EDD must implement the majority of the recommendations provided by independent state audits, such as conducting a risk-assessment analysis and increasing staffing and training, according to State Auditor Elaine Howle.
EDD directed Bank of America to freeze about 344,000 accounts without having “a plan or a method or approach” to “assess all of those accounts and determine which are legitimate claimants and unfreeze those accounts as quickly as possible,” according to Howle.
Bank of America officials said that they were working on a plan to unfreeze cards.