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2 years and counting: Santa Barbara business owner says the state is giving up on her

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - For nearly two years, the NewsChannel 3 Tipline has reported on the problems at the California Employment Development Department, better known as the EDD.

The EDD oversees the state’s unemployment and pandemic assistance programs. People we’ve met during this health crisis have worked hard their entire lives and deserve those benefits to keep a roof over their head and food on the table during the pandemic. 

We’ve helped a lot of people. Sadly, this story is not one of them.

“In the beginning it was really scary because I didn’t really know what was going to happen to me financially,” said Alice Huang.

Huang owns Women’s Athletic Club in Santa Barbara. When COVID shut everything down in early 2020, businesses like hers struggled to avoid bankruptcy.

“I never made a claim in my entire life. So I thought I would try, any amount of money would have been nice,” said Huang.

Huang said she lost half of her membership overnight. The pandemic assistance programs were created for people just like her.

However, she said it took a month to even get into the EDD system to file her claim because so many people were trying to do the same thing at the same time.

“As I was filling it out, three-quarters of the way through they asked for a password that I never had. So, I’ve been in limbo since April, 2020,” said Huang.

Huang said she called EDD just about everyday for more than a year trying to get help, but she couldn’t get through and when she did, she heard this:

“We’re too busy right now, please call back,” said Huang.

“Some people are going to hear this and go, ‘This is all over just a password?’ People are going to hear that and go ‘no way,’" asked Tipline Reporter C.J. Ward.

“Yes, there is a way. In the beginning trying to get through for a month, they would always email me back, okay we’re going to email you the info that you need. But the email never went through,” explained Huang.

Huang said she never could reach a human being at EDD, everything was automated which added to her frustration. Family and friends helped her financially and some members continued to pay their fees even when they couldn’t use the gym.

Huang first contacted News Channel 3 in August, 2020. At that point, she had already spent five months trying to get her pandemic benefits and she was struggling.

“You just kinda give up, give up and take things one day at a time,” said Huang.

We contacted EDD on Huang’s behalf four times in the first two months. EDD officials finally responded and told us they would look into her claim.

About the same time in the Fall and Winter of 2020, we started investigating massive fraud involving EDD claims, dozens of EDD letters showing up at the same Santa Barbara home addressed to different people. Inside each envelope, EDD debit cards worth tens of thousands of dollars. Luckily, we got them before the crooks did.

“These individuals are sophisticated and they’re dangerous,” said Jim Patterson, State Assemblyman from Fresno.

Patterson said fraud at EDD has cost taxpayers billions of dollars since the pandemic started.

State investigators discovered the crooks hacked into the EDD system, changed account information on legitimate claims, so they could redirect the money to them.

Hard working Californians like Yolanda Perez are the real victims. Her job at Macy’s was eliminated when the pandemic hit. She had to fight EDD for 8 months to get her benefits.

“One time I was on hold for five hours. I was determined to speak with somebody. It was a Saturday morning. I am not hanging up and I did talk to someone after five hours with no resolution,” said Perez.

EDD made her go before a judge to prove her identity. She won and eventually got her money. Perez, a member of the Women’s Athletic Club, encourages Huang not to give up.

Huang said almost two years have gone by and she’s still waiting for EDD to help her. The password and email issues are just part of the problem. She also discovered the EDD has been sending her mail to the wrong address.

“It’s very frustrating for me. I actually feel worse for other people who did not have a landlord that has been very patient, I had savings, I have family who helped me,” said Huang.

News Channel 3 contacted EDD for comment for this story. An EDD spokesperson responded by email explaining they are limited in what they can say about Huang's complaint. EDD claims it has no record of Huang registering for a UI (Unemployment Insurance) online account. However, NewsChannel 3 has documentation EDD sent to Huang which indicates that she does have an account. The documents include an EDD account number. We contacted EDD again to clarify if the account number which appears on Huang's paperwork is confirmation that she has an existing account in which a claim could be processed. So far, we have not received a reply.

Are the problems with Huang's account indicators that her EDD account was hacked by thieves who've stolen an estimated $20-billion taxpayer dollars to this point? The people who might be able to figure it out work at the California EDD. In the meantime, we are hoping the EDD takes another looks at Huang's case.

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C.J. Ward

C.J. Ward is the evening anchor for KEYT News Channel 3 and the station’s lead investigative reporter. To learn more about C.J., click here

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