Tipline Investigation: Errors in state system leave unemployed Californians scared, mad and frustrated
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - More than a million Californians are on the verge of becoming homeless. Sadly, the safety net they thought would help them is letting them down when they need it most. They're afraid, outraged, confused and feel betrayed by the state. Some who've worked for decades and paid into the system have never filed for unemployment benefits before. Now when they need it to survive they can't even get someone on the phone to help them.
"When you're unemployed and you've worked most of your life and you're going through this Coronavirus and then I was dealing with my mom that was dying, she passed away two weeks ago, and then I don't have any money, it really weighs on you," said Delores Johnson from the front porch of her home in Santa Barbara.
Johnson worked in aviation for 37 years until the pandemic shut everything down. She was furloughed and filed for unemployment benefits on March 22, 2020.
"Within a few days after I filed the claim, I got a notice saying that I didn't qualify. Then I realized they had the wrong social security number," said Johnson.
The numbers were so far off we wondered where the California Employment Development Department got that number. Looking over Johnson's paperwork, it appeared EDD mistakenly switched one of its internal control numbers with Johnson's social security number. Johnson said she spent four months desperately trying to get EDD to acknowledge and correct its mistake.
“Sent emails to the Governor. I even volunteered to help since I have management skills and I figured I could help EDD because I’m unemployed anyway,” said Johnson.
She said everyone from local lawmakers to federal officials told her all she could do is keep calling the EDD main number.
“I call it, and then, they’re too busy. So then they say, call this other number, they’re too busy and they hang up. It’s all a recording,” said Johnson.
“Now the mainline, we have never, ever got through to it, ever!” said Chris Aasen during a Zoom interview from his home in Oxnard.
Chris Aasen and his daughter, Shelby, tell the same frustrating story.
“I just noticed that my Social was wrong on the top corner of my paperwork,” said Shelby Aasen during the same interview.
Just like Delores Johnson, Shelby Aasen says EDD screwed up her social security number and then denied her benefits. She applied on March 13, 2020, re-submitted her documentation to correct EDD's mistake and since then hasn't been able to get through to anyone.
“So, that starts the process, a very long process of you guys trying to reach out to them and even reach a human being?” asked NewsChannel reporter C.J. Ward. “Yea, I mean we have logged thousands of numbers, we have it sitting right here. Thousands, thousands of numbers from our cell phone bills,” said Chris Aasen.
Shelby Aasen graduated from Cal Lutheran University and landed her first job as a professional photographer and graphic designer. Then she was furloughed. Her dad is helping out, but even his income was slashed by half.
“I can’t help pay for my car, my car insurance, gas or pay for my student loan,” said Shelby Aasen.
“Yea, it’s been a stressful situation. There’s been a few arguments here in the house, I’m not too proud of, you know?” said Chris Aasen.
Aasen and Johnson are among at least 1.2 million Californians who’ve applied for unemployment benefits and received nothing so far. Some estimates put the number much higher.
People started calling the NewsChannel Tipline in April and May. They didn’t want to talk on camera because they said they were embarrassed or afraid they would make someone mad at the state and never get their benefits. We believe the NewsChannel Tipline Team has helped all or most of those people get their money. We don’t know for sure because EDD officials won’t tell us anything about a claim citing privacy reasons. We know this much, the state system is antiquated and overwhelmed.
“This is a situation that nobody could foresee, nobody could foresee this,” said State Senator Hannah Beth Jackson during a Zoom interview from her office in Sacramento.
Jackson said the state was caught flat footed. Initial unemployment claims surged more than 1300% from February, before the shutdown, to April.
“We’ve been operating on an old, antiquated system with not enough people and suddenly, boom, we have this crisis.”
Jackson admitted that EDD is still manually processing claims that need identity verification. That means they are processed by hand which might explain, what appear to be, human errors we’ve been finding on claims that never should have been denied.
“Social security number off by one digit, transposed numbers. They have a control number internally that almost looks like a social security number. I’ve seen that flip flopped. So I don’t know if you guys have looked at that. Have you heard of any of these issues?” asked C.J. Ward. “Oh, we have. The verification process has been, I mean there are so many problems, but the verification process seems to be the number one issue, ” said Jackson.
Jackson said her office has handled 1,000 cases and even her staff struggles to get answers from EDD.
“As frustrated as anybody else. I am very frustrated by this,” said Jackson.
As bad as it all sounds, is there any hope?
"Within three days from talking to you, I got a phone call and then within, I would guess, not even ten days I got my first check. So, it happened really fast. So, whoever you're talking to is an angel and you need wings because without you I wasn't getting anywhere. So, I'm really quite pleased, thank you," said Delores Johnson to the NewsChannel Tipline Team.
Shelby Aasen also received a notice from E.D.D. after NewsChannel got involved. She received a debit card on Friday with all of the money that she's owed.
We've since received more complaints from our viewers who claim their unemployment benefits were denied possibly because of EDD mistakes with their social security number. The Tipline Team is trying to help those folks as well.
State Senator Hannah Beth Jackson said her office is focused on helping everyone who has filed a claim, but they are prioritizing the requests to resolve the oldest claims first. You can contact her office at 805-965-0862.
You can also contact the NewsChannel Tipline at 805-882-3903. We are working overtime to help as many people as possible get their unemployment benefits as quickly as possible.
The NewsChannel Tipline Team did contact Governor Gavin Newsom's office for an interview. A spokesperson for the Governor referred us to the California Employment Development Department instead. We requested an on-camera interview with EDD officials for this story. EDD declined our request, but a spokesperson did send us the following written statement:
“We understand people’s concerns, and we are fully committed to ensuring California workers that have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic get the benefits they are eligible to receive. Our agency is working hard to address the unacceptable backlog of unpaid unemployment insurance claims by no later than the end of September. We are also committed to increasing resources and streamline processes; for example, we have just extended the time available to submit a certification to a claim from 21 days to 120 days; we have also begun sending weekly reminders to customers to certify their claims, with more than 500,000 emails being sent in just a few weeks; additionally, we are working to improve the call center so that people that need to call in can get the help they need. EDD has also redirected and continues to hire staff to assist with calls and claims, and we launched a chat box and a text messaging alert system for claimants in April, which have reached millions of Californians so far. It’s also important to note that since March, the state has processed 10.2 million claims and paid $63.9 billion in benefits, as well as quickly implemented several federal pandemic-related programs that have helped millions of workers.”California Employment Development Department statement
For background, since March, EDD has:
- Processed 10.2 million claims, and paid $63.9 billion in benefits;
- Created a technical assistance call center in April available seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in both English and Spanish;
- Redirected more than 600 staff from other units and 700 staff from other departments to assist the UI Branch on a both a full time and temporary basis;
- Created an online chat bot to provide claimants information and resource on frequently asked questions. It has received 3.6 million inquiries since it was launched in April;
- Launched a text messaging alert system regarding claim status. Around 9 million texts have been sent to nearly 3.3 million claimants since its launch;
- Received authorization to hire 5,300 new temporary employees; EDD worked with CalHR to expedite the hiring process. Over 4,900 employees have been approved for hire and more than 3,100 are in various stages of onboarding, training and deployment;
- Stood up several new federal pandemic-related UI programs, including Pandemic Additional Compensation; Pandemic Unemployment Assistance; Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation; and Federal-State Extended Duration (FED-ED), and modernizing Work Share.
- Enhanced the federal Work Sharing Program, which helps businesses avert layoffs by reducing staff hours and allowing staff to receive both part-time earnings and a prorated percentage of UI benefits, thereby keeping their jobs and allowing the business to remain open.
Don't forget to watch tonight's story on NewsChannel 3 and NewsChannel 12 at 6 & 11pm.
Click here to read the legislative EDD's letter to the governor.
Click here to read correspondence between California Labor Secretary Julie Su and EDD Director Sharon Hilliard.