- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - The state agency that handles unemployment claims for millions of Californians says it has hired nearly 500 new employees to process claims since Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration ordered it last year to beef up customer service.

But officials testified Wednesday that the agency’s technology still lags and responses take longer than desired.

People seeking unemployment benefits now have to try an average of five times before they reach someone, down from an average of 31 tries in 2013, officials testified.

Lawmakers approved an extra $47 million in state funding and $21 million in federal money last year for the Employment Development Department after a series of problems, including thousands of unanswered phone messages and a software upgrade that delayed payments to about 150,000 residents.

“There was a lot of calamity,” said Employment Development Director Director Patrick Henning Jr., who was appointed by Brown last March. “We need to make sure that we have an unemployment system that is prepared for the next downturn.”

The department handles the largest unemployment insurance program in the nation, doling out $6.1 billion and processing 3.5 million claims in 2014. In late 2013, the department reported that 83 percent to 90 percent of calls went unanswered by a live employee on any given day.

Still, the improvements come as the number of claims for unemployment has declined dramatically post-recession. California’s unemployment rate hit a high of 12.4 percent in early 2010 and remained in that range for much of 2010. It fell to 7 percent in December, the most recent data available.

The employment agency’s $110 million computer upgrade was supposed to aid its ability to verify who was eligible to receive benefits. But it has been plagued by problems. “As much as I would love to say it’s the best system, what I will tell you is we are doing the best we can with what we have,” Henning said Wednesday.

Henning said the agency now handles 50,000 calls a week, and its system allows callers who are on hold to opt for a call back instead of waiting. In the past three weeks, 100 percent of new claims were processed within three days, according to an Employment Development Department report.

The unemployment system is underfunded, and California has borrowed billions from the federal government to pay benefits, state officials say. California owes $8.7 billion to the federal government in unemployment loans, the state Legislative Analyst’s Office said Wednesday.

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