Life on Hold: Unemployment Horror Stories

Accessing EDD benefits is virtually impossible, and the out-of-work are paying the price.

When shelter-in-place began, the Radisson Oakland Airport where Sonyia Jordan worked as a waitress was converted into temporary homeless housing, and Jordan was let go. She immediately applied for unemployment, and about two weeks later, received her account number for CalJobs, the online portal for accessing benefits. But when she tried to log in, she was greeted with an “error” message. Jordan was locked out of her own account. 

Thus began Jordan’s ongoing saga of attempting to get in touch with the California Economic Development Department (EDD), the agency that oversees unemployment benefits. More than three months and over a thousand phone calls later, by her estimate, Jordan is right back where she started — unemployed and without unemployment benefits. 

“It’s really affected me mentally. I used to be the breadwinner and this has taken my pride away,” Jordan says of her bureaucratic and financial nightmare. “I can talk to everybody but EDD. I can tell my story to everyone, even reach the Governor, but when I called EDD even yesterday, they gave me the same message, ‘Due to the amount of call volume, we are unable to answer your call,’ and then it hangs up.” 

Jordan’s story is not unique. SF Weekly spoke to five Bay Area residents who have had harrowing experiences with California EDD. Their stories demonstrate that anybody dealing with special circumstances or a clerical error on their unemployment claim is likely in for a long, difficult journey. Speaking with an agent can require hours of sitting on hold, and even if you reach a human being, they may not be experienced or knowledgeable enough to help. Emails and support tickets go unanswered for weeks. Claimants have developed hacks and workarounds to improve their odds of resolving their issues, but for Jordan and others, help, and desperately needed cash, remain out of reach.

As COVID-19 cases continue to surge in California, the millions of unemployment claims flowing through the EDD look less like a freakish statistical blip than yet another feature of the “new normal.” As a result, an outdated, woefully unprepared agency has found itself at the center of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and people like Jordan must endure the consequences, with little recourse but to keep dialing again and again and again. 

‘UNPRECEDENTED’ CHALLENGES

The current crisis is exacerbated by the EDD’s long standing technological and managerial problems. Like unemployment agencies in states across the country, California’s EDD receives its funding primarily from the federal government. That funding fluctuates based on the number of claims it receives, which, until March, were at historic lows. This “boom and bust cycle of funding… makes it hard for California and every other state to invest in infrastructure and staffing,” says Maurice Emsellem, the fair-chance program director at the National Employment Law Project.

In 2010 the EDD set out to modernize its IT, which still ran on COBOL computer code, a 1960s-era language that few contemporary programmers know. The new system — whose $94 million payday for the consulting firm Deloitte triggered a state audit — turned out to be not so new, after all. When all was said and done, the EDD walked away with a patched-up version of its old system, which still runs COBOL for some programs. The agency is currently in the midst of an even bigger IT redesign, expected to be finished next year, Emsellem says.

While somewhat incomplete, the current state of the EDD system does put it in a better position than it would have been if it had remained in its retro form. “In some ways, even though I spend all day long fighting with the EDD, I was actually impressed by the number of claims that they were able to process,” says Daniela Urban, director of the Center for Workers Rights in Sacramento, a legal aid organization that helps workers navigate the EDD system.

But it’s still woefully inadequate for the “totally unprecedented” number of claims that have been piling up, Emsellem says. Of the 5.01 million claims the agency received between March and May, 1.88 million have yet to be paid, according to an investigation by the San Jose Mercury News

The state’s unemployment rate of 16.3 percent in May, while down slightly from April, is still higher than any other time since the EDD began collecting data in 1976. San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area have slightly lower unemployment rates — 12.6 percent in San Francisco and 13.1 percent in the Bay Area overall — due to the large proportion of the workforce that can work from home.

But that means the people who have lost their jobs are likely those in the worst position to bear it. A University of Chicago study of unemployment across the U.S. found that 30 percent of people in the bottom fifth of the income distribution lost their jobs through May, compared to 5 percent in the top fifth. In the Bay Area, many of those low wage workers, like all five of the unemployment claimants SF Weekly interviewed, are in the food service and hospitality industries.

WAITING IN VAIN

No one wants to sit on the phone for hours waiting to speak with an EDD agent. Everyone who calls does so because they have an issue with their claim. And right now, due to the extremely high unemployment case load, a lot of people are having issues. 

Alexis Deneau, an event planner in San Francisco, was unable to access the CalJobs portal, and the unemployment benefits therein, for nearly a month because an EDD agent had misspelled her name.

Andrea Lara, a server at RT Rotisserie in Hayes Valley, wondered for weeks why her benefits weren’t coming, only to learn that she was on a six week penalty due to a mistake she made on an EDD form three years ago. 

Sarah Heslin, a bartender at Hardwood Bar and Smokery in SoMa was the victim of identity theft, leaving her unable to access her unemployment benefits for the duration of the pandemic. Sean Briggs, a fine dining chef in Oakland, was able to get his benefits without a problem at the beginning of shelter-in-place, only for them to stop coming in May. Like Jordan, he has not been able to ascertain the problem with his claim, since actually getting an EDD customer service representative on the line is a near-impossible task.

Trying to negotiate the EDD’s bureaucratic labyrinth takes a toll. (Shutterstock)

Heslin estimates the number of times she’s called various EDD numbers is “in the thousands.” Many of these calls are directed straight to the automated message, “We are currently receiving more calls than we have the capacity to answer. At the end of the message the phone will hang up,” at which point Heslin would simply redial. 

Of the four times that Heslin has reached an agent, two were negative experiences. She says that the first customer service agent she reached called her a liar because her name didn’t match that of her identity thief. “I almost cried on the phone,” Heslin says. “I have my social security card in my hand, don’t tell me that Jose [the name of the person who stole her identity] is a real person.” 

Yet another time, Heslin says a customer service agent answered simply to tell her to call back later. “‘I don’t work in this department, I’m just here to pick up the phones. I can’t help you. Try again.’” 

An EDD agent who called Deneau back to help her with the spelling error on her claim complained about the fact that he had to wear a mask at work, she says. “I was like, know your audience, dude. I’m calling you because I have no money. So are we going to get into a pissing contest about who’s having a harder day?”

To be fair, EDD agents are themselves having very hard days, speaking to an endless parade of desperate people who have likely been on hold for hours. Aubrey Henry, an EDD spokesperson, says the agency is in the midst of hiring 4,800 new agents to deal with the unprecedented surge in demand. Of those, 1,300 have already been hired and the several hundred dedicated to call center operations are “finishing up their training now to start taking calls over the next couple of weeks.” 

However, internal EDD chat room logs shared with CBS Los Angeles in June indicate that at least some call center agents have been put on the job with minimal knowledge of some of the elementary aspects of their work, including how to redial claimants and when to transfer callers to other agents. 

RUNAROUND WORKAROUND

Finding little success with the EDD’s help lines, claimants have looked for workarounds. “We don’t tell our clients, ‘Just call,’ because we know they’re not going to get through,” says Urban, the worker advocate. “So we try to investigate other ways that they can resolve the issue.” 

Jordan, Heslin, and Briggs have all contacted Governor Gavin Newsom’s office asking for help. Apparently, the Governor’s staffers are just as exasperated as many EDD agents. “As soon as I said the word EDD, [Newsom’s staffer] shut me down and said I’m not listening to that, that’s not what we do,” Jordan says. 

She got a kinder reception at Senator Kamala Harris’ office, but still no help with her claim. She’s now working with Tonya Love, District Director for State Assemblymember Rob Bonta, who Jordan says has been “pretty amazing. If I send her any kind of email, she gets back to me right away.” 

Facebook groups like “Unofficial California Unemployment Help,” have become spaces for claimants to vent, and sometimes actually prove to be helpful. A member of this group gave Lara a phone number specifically related to issues with EDD’s online system, which he said wasn’t as busy as the main helpline. Lara dedicated a day — “at least 8 or 9 hours” — to repeatedly calling that number and finally reached an agent who was able to explain that her benefits were not coming due to the penalty she incurred three years ago for failing to report a single day of work. Lara says she paid back the money she improperly received at the time.  

Deneau managed to get help the old fashioned way. “Out of sheer desperation I started calling other resources that I had heard about,” she says. One of those was the America’s Job Center of California in Oakland, where an agent told her to mail a letter to the address in the top left corner of her claim. “I can’t help you,” the agent said, “but they can.” Lo and behold, the letter worked, and a couple of weeks later Deneau’s claim was squared away. She started recommending the strategy to friends who were in a similar position. 

Henry, the EDD spokesperson, said that UI Online is the quickest way to ask a question about a claim. He also recommended the technical help line, 1-833-978-2511 — the one Lara  found success with — which is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week, unlike the main helpline, which is only open 8am to noon. “We realize the process is far from perfect in light of the sudden and historic claim load, but our team is committed to continuing our efforts to upgrade the UI platform to better serve the people of California,” Henry wrote in an email.

‘RACKING UP DEBT’

In the meantime, the people waiting on their unemployment benefits are suffering real, material consequences. All of the claimants interviewed for this story were able to take advantage of their stimulus check. But that $1,200 only goes so far, especially in the Bay Area. 

Briggs, the chef whose unemployment benefits stopped coming in May, is in dire straits. He spoke to SF Weekly on Facetime Audio, since he hasn’t been able to pay his phone bill. He’s also two months behind on rent, but thankfully, his landlord is understanding.

“I have to rely on other people just to eat food right now. I’m racking up debt within my social circles,” Briggs says. “I was homeless for five years and I still managed to take care of myself better than I can right now.” 

While she was without unemployment benefits, Lara had to keep her spending to the “bare minimum. Like beans and rice.” Heslin has been borrowing from her sister and burning through savings, and Jordan has been relying on help from her mother, whom she previously supported. She also got on welfare. 

When they were able to get their unemployment money, the claimants SF Weekly spoke to greatly appreciated the extra $600 per week in Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) from the CARES Act. That more than doubles what most single people earn on unemployment in California. But the PUC is set to expire at the end of July, unless Congress reauthorizes it. And so far, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and fellow Republicans don’t support it, although a second round of stimulus checks for low-income people seems likely.  

It’s yet another looming crisis for the hundreds of thousands of unemployed people in the Bay Area, where the typical $400-$600 in weekly benefits barely covers rent. That is, of course, if you’re fortunate enough to be able to access your benefits. 

Pressure is mounting for the EDD to get its act together, with a bipartisan group of state senators calling for an audit. But with more businesses shutting down each day as California’s COVID-19 case counts continue to escalate, it’s hard to say when the EDD will be able to clear its backlog of claims. Governor Newsom has warned that the unemployment rate could reach 25 percent, just as it did during the Great Depression. 

 “I don’t know how long it’s going to be like this,” Jordan says, “I just know it’s not right.”


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