BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — Local lawmakers are demanding answers and action from the state's Employment Development Department, saying problems are hurting the public.
Eyewitness News has investigated concerns with EDD for about a year, long before the latest glitch with a new computer system's rollout. The complaints continue.
"Before I finally got my first check, four months had passed," John Mejia said. "So, four months of rent, four months of PG&E, telephone bills, to keep my cell phone on, so I can find work."
Mejia is one of hundreds of viewers who contacted Eyewitness News, complaining about problems like not being able to reach EDD on the phone lines or website. Many say they never get responses or answers, and benefits are delayed.
State Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, is one legislator who wants answers. His office was flooded with calls after the new EDD computer system started up over the Labor Day weekend.
"We need to get to the bottom, and see what the problem is," Vidak told Eyewitness News. "Government broke down here, and we want to try to make it better."
In mid-October, Vidak and state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, asked for an oversight hearing into EDD.
"It is very unfortunate that, in addition to facing the hardship of unemployment and a job search, our constituents are now confronted with the challenge of having to navigate a system that unexpectedly cut them off from their (unemployment insurance) checks," their letter reads.
State Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, has been trying to help constituents for months. Eyewitness News has referred viewers to her office, and that included Mejia. With that help, Mejia said he finally got some benefits.
"I'm so glad to hear that," Fuller said. "We're trying to be able to help everyone."
Fuller's office has reached EDD officials and helped constituents resolve issues or get answers. But, even that got tough after the new computer system started up.
"As you remember, we were having trouble even having our calls returned," Fuller said about that period. "They were just so overwhelmed."
EDD said things are working now with the new computer system.
"All major issues stemming from the conversion of old claim data and some delayed forms have been resolved since the launch of our new Unemployment Insurance (UI) payment processing system," reads a statement from an EDD spokeswoman to Eyewitness News.
That update from late October went on to say EDD had paid out more than $1.3 billion in total benefits through the new system by that time, and "about 80 percent" had been processed on the same day they were received.
"We are now in a fine-tuning phase with our new system," the statement reads.
On Nov. 6, an Assembly committee held a hearing into the EDD problems. Several lawmakers said they'd heard numerous complaints from constituents, and some estimated nearly 150,000 claims had been delayed for weeks because of the computer system change.
An EDD spokesman explained then the department was trying to transition from a 30-year-old system to a new one, and designers didn't realize how much longer it would take to deal with so-called "stop payment flags." At that hearing, EDD and the system provider said they should have done a "time and motion" study before the new software rollout.
EDD said it used overtime to deal with the effects from the computer glitch. Officials also said the department has struggled with low staffing levels due to a lack of federal funding.
Because of the staffing issues and high number of claims, EDD officials have told Eyewitness News improvements to their online services were vital. Increased use of the website would mean fewer calls would be necessary. And, improvements to things like forms would decrease user mistakes causing delays.
Mejia said he would start calling the EDD phone lines early in the morning, and keep trying all day, very seldom getting through. He tried using the website, but he said he sent 15 emails over more than two months and never got a response.
At one point, he was asked to verify his identity, and that was another long ordeal with multiple trips to Social Security.
"The whole process has been so frustrating," Mejia said, "and humbling, as well."
Charles Sands has similar frustration with the EDD disability process.
"I've been waiting almost a year to get anything," he told Eyewitness News. "And I have a 9-year-old daughter to take care of."
Sands said he's gotten through only once on the EDD phone line.
Trying to get answers for our viewers, Eyewitness News has been to the EDD headquarters in Sacramento. We were told the improved computer systems would help people get answers and benefits.
When the new software went online and the huge backlog developed, state Labor Secretary Marty Morgenstern ordered EDD to make payments first, and then work through verification of the benefits.
Eyewitness News asked for an interview with Morgenstern but was referred back to EDD. Morgenstern retired in early November, and a new secretary was named.
Eyewitness News has also requested interviews twice in the last year with Gov. Jerry Brown and also was then referred back to EDD.
Who can make the department do a better job?
"Exactly, that's why Anthony Canella, Sen. Cannella and I, went and met with them," Vidak said. "How we, as lawmakers, can keep this from happening again and make sure we fix the problem, because it's putting a big hardship on our folks."
Vidak has asked for a hearing in the state Senate Insurance Committee. He's not sure when that will happen.
Mejia is glad to hear lawmakers are probing the issues with EDD.
"I think it's a good start," he said. "I'd like to see a real investigation take place."
He said the impacts are real and significant.
"It's just overwhelming," Mejia said. "It doesn't just affect me and my situation, it affects a chain of people. Creditors, a landlord who's trying to make a payment on the house."
Waiting months for disability benefits, Charles Sands said the same.
"I struggle to pay my electric bill every month," he said. "If I was anywhere else, I'd probably be out on the street, because I've got a good landlord that works with me."
Sen. Fuller said hearings will be a good start.
'I think it's important to bring the facts forward," she said. But, Fuller wants even more answers.
"What is the actual unemployment? It's a lot greater than I think a lot of people think," Fuller said. "Once you put that on paper, I think you're going to see a bigger problem than just the software glitch."
The senator said the computer system must be fixed because that's caused a bottleneck.
But, she wants to dig into other EDD problems, and beyond that deal with the number of people who need to use that system, by nailing down the actual unemployment numbers.
"Once we come to that, then I think we need to work on how do we build more jobs," Fuller stressed.
But first, she said, problems at EDD need to be fixed.
"Whatever our government has promised, then they need to design a system that accurately delivers," she said.
Vidak said the hearing he's asking for would get answers and action.
"I think we need to look at it all," the senator said. "We want to look at everything we can. We're going to shine a light on this thing, and figure out what's going on."