California to 'Pause' Accepting Unemployment Claims Until Oct. 5

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A woman looks at the Employment Development Department (EDD) website, where California residents can file for unemployment, on March 16, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

California’s Employment Development Department will halt accepting unemployment claims until Oct. 5 while it tackles a massive backlog of 600,000 cases, and retools its website to process new cases more quickly.

The announcement comes after the release of a report Saturday from a strike team assembled by Gov. Gavin Newsom that highlights the department's need for a massive overhaul to meet the overwhelming demand from millions of Californians who are out of work.

The employment department needs to reform soon, the strike team noted, because its backlog is growing by 10,000 unemployment claims a day — claims that may not be reviewed for months.

The department can only process about 2,400 claims per day.

"As long as the inbound rate of claims per day exceeds what the slowest, lowest throughput part of the system can complete in a day, the backlog of undetermined claims will grow unbounded until the new claims rate decreases," the strike team wrote in the report.

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In a letter to Newsom, EDD Director Sharon Hilliard said the "pause" would allow her department to catch up with its backlog and implement new technologies, strategies and protocols to tackle the overwhelming number of claims.

In the meantime, those filing new unemployment claims will be directed to a temporary website where they can leave their contact information, Hilliard wrote.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, EDD has paid more than 12.6 million claims for unemployment benefits, including new federal programs providing pandemic assistance, according to the report.

Republicans took the report's findings as an opportunity to skewer Newsom. In a statement posted on Twitter, California Republican Party Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson wrote, "Governor Newsom can try to run, but he can't hide from his failed handling of California's unemployment department."

Representatives from the state's Government Operations
Agency, Department of Technology and Office of Digital Innovation served on the strike team, which was assembled by Newsom in July.

Its 45-day review outlined ways the department's technology systems can be more customer-focused and recommended new hiring goals to tackle the ever-growing backlog of claims.

More staff is needed, the report's authors noted, as the employment division's phone lines are overwhelmed. In one week in July the department netted 6.7 million phone calls, but only had 20 staffers available to handle the phones at any one time.

The EDD now plans to hire as many as 3,000 new staffers by October to handle phone calls.

But the backlog takes priority. To that end, the strike team, led by Yolanda Richardson, secretary of the government operations agency, and Jennifer Pahlka, who founded Code for America and served briefly as deputy chief technology officer in the Obama administration, focused on finding ways to move legitimate unemployment claims faster through the process.

The team observed EDD staff at work in offices in Sacramento and Rancho Cordova, reviewed training materials and claimant communications, studied call center data, extracted and analyzed data from EDD's many information technology systems and interviewed hundreds of people, including legislative members and staff.

Short-term recommendations made by the strike team include improving transparency, modernizing how documents are uploaded, establishing clear metrics to track claims and target source deployment and implementing a plan to reduce the backlog based on data, including increased use of outbound calling to claimants to resolve issues.

Longer-term recommendations include launching a cross-disciplinary modernization project involving an overhaul of administrative rules and procedures, operations and technology, with the main focus on improving the experience of those filing for unemployment benefits.

This story includes reporting from Bay City News.