Dealing with state's disability system 'has been a nightmare'

Dealing with state's disability system 'has been a nightmare'

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — Kern County residents say it's impossible to reach the state Employment Development Department with questions about their unemployment or disability benefits.

It's an issue Eyewitness News first investigated this summer, and viewers say there's been no improvement. EDD officials apologized Wednesday, but their only advice: keep trying.

"Dealing with the EDD has been a nightmare," Sherry told Eyewitness News. She didn't want to use her last name.

Sherry’s trying to get some temporary disability payments after having surgery.

"I've called several times, several times a day over the last three to four weeks, and I've never been able to get through," she said.

After Eyewitness News put her concerns on the station Facebook page, numerous other furious viewers chimed in.

"We understand their frustration, and we're really sorry," EDD spokeswoman Catalina Martinez said by phone from Sacramento. She could only say their system is getting a lot of contacts right now. "We're having a high volume of calls due to the end of the Federal (unemployment benefit) extension right now."

Dialing in to the EDD phone line, a caller will hear a message about the impending changes to benefits, and then be asked to punch in numbers for various assistance. Complainers say they never get that help.

"When I finally get to the spot where I'm hoping someone will get on the phone, it says, 'Sorry, we've reached the maximum number of calls,' and hangs up on me every single time," Sherry said. "Not once have I spoken to a live person."

EDD's Martinez said it's more effective to use the department's website, but complainers say that hasn't worked for them either.

"I sent them three or four emails and never received a response, never received a call back,” Brittany Hamstreet told Eyewitness News. She needed to open a new unemployment claim after moving back from Montana. She said that was back in May, and she started the process.

"It immediately directed you to call and speak with a representative," Hamstreet said. But, that started her frustrating path on the phone. "I got kicked off, you get kind of run around in circles."

But after a tip from a neighbor, Hamstreet finally used a trick.

"The one time I got in touch with anybody, I actually went to the Vietnamese line," she said. Hamstreet said a real person answered who also spoke English. That representative helped, and within four or five days everything was taken care of.

Others try a different tactic when they run out of patience with the phone system. One viewer told Eyewitness News she finally drove up to Fresno and went to the EDD office there. She said getting contact with a spokesman in person, her issues were quickly resolved.

"I'm really sorry that had to happen," EDD's Martinez said about the drive to Fresno. She insisted the system is working.

"To our knowledge there are no problems with our phone systems, or our website," Martinez said.

Many callers beg to differ. "The thing that's the most frustrating, is having an automated system hang up on you,"  Hamstreet said.

Martinez said EDD has improved their systems. She said more staff was hired in 2008, and before that the number of "call attempts" was up to 40. "But now, I think it's up to three times and you can get through," she said.

"I've called every day, every day, five days a week," Sherry countered, and she'd never been able to reach a spokesman on the EDD phone system. Other viewers tell Eyewitness News they've had similar experiences, and they've tried calling at all different times of the day.

"Believe me, we don't like to hear these comments," Martinez said. "We're just asking them to continue calling us back or going online."

Sherry says she needed the disability benefits, and notes she paid into that system. Brittany Hamstreet says she needed the unemployment benefits so she'd have enough money to go job-hunting. She has landed a job, but she's sympathetic to anyone still trying to deal with the EDD system.

"It was a headache," Hamstreet said, and she has advice for how the EDD system needs to improve. "They should make people more accessible,"

The EDD spokeswoman's only advice was that it's best to use their phone system on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. She also noted they are serving the entire state, and apologized, and said the department is doing the best they can.

Sherry remains frustrated and unconvinced.

"They're well aware of the problem," Sherry said. "And unfortunately, it's not getting fixed."