This is Part 1 of a series.
Obamacare’s computers aren’t the only government systems struck by major glitches.
Two months after a California Employment Development Department computer crash cut off tens of thousands of Californians from their unemployment benefits, the EDD remains overwhelmed by overdue unemployment claims from thousands of people looking for jobs.
State Labor Secretary Marty Morgenstern, an appointee of Gov. Jerry Brown, quickly ordered EDD officials to pay the unemployment claims immediately, and check eligibility later. Yet today thousands of jobless Californians remain frustrated.
I contacted EDD spokesman Dan Stephens with questions about the computer problems and how claimants can get through.
Q: Is the scope of the computer problem larger than originally anticipated?
Stephens: “As with any large IT infrastructure upgrade, standard procedures were followed: defects were identified in a system, tested, the programming modified, and then tested again. All major indicators prior to going live with our new system indicated all was clear to launch. All major issues stemming from the conversion of old claim data and some delayed certification forms have been resolved since the launch of our new payment processing system over Labor Day weekend.”
Q: How do claimants get through to a real person at EDD? It’s not clear on the website what to do with problem claims. Is there a phone line or online link for unusual claim problems?
Stephens: “EDD’s administrative costs are federally funded. Unfortunately, EDD currently is understaffed due to federal funding reductions despite the demand that remains more than twice what it was before the recent recession. We simply cannot continue to support all channels of service, and customers do have alternatives to the phone. Our staff focus instead is on processing claims and payments and getting through this transition to our new system. The more we can get our customers using the self-service tools we have made available, the more our limited staff can be available to take care of claims with more complex needs.”
Q: What is the EDD’s policy for ongoing claimants who are not receiving payments?
Stephens: “The UI [unemployment insurance] program is an eligibility-based system where regular unemployment benefits are paid by employers. Once a claimant is found eligible to receive benefits, they are required to submit a continued claim form every two weeks verifying that they remain eligible for each week to receive continued benefits. Our new payment processing system automatically reviews these ongoing certifications for eligibility and forwards eligible ones for payment without the need for staff intervention. Certifications that are straightforward and absent of errors can be processed and paid within a matter of days. Those that contain errors or more complex eligibility issues, such as not being able to work due to an injury or illness, are forwarded to staff for review and possibly further clarification from the claimant.
“If someone still believes they are due payment dating back to the launch of our new system, they are likely either ineligible for unemployment benefits, or their case is pending due to more complex issues that have always existed in the UI program. These include such issues as:
“* the individual has yet to have their initial claim established due to more complex issues involving severance pay;
” * missing wage information;
“* an employer protest of the claim;
“* a military claim, which can take up to 60 days to finalize wage information;
“* an identity alert issue; or
“* other more complex eligibility issues.”
Since launch of new payment processing system, EDD has paid more than $2 billion in total unemployment benefits and processed more than 5.5 million certifications for continued benefits through our system. Our system is currently processing more than 80% of all certifications on the same day they are received. The remaining 20% are forwarded to staff for typical eligibility review to ensure the claimant has met all requirements for ongoing benefits, including being physically able, available, and looking for work. Eligibility reviews have always been a required part of the UI program.
Q: Was the EDD available over the Thanksgiving weekend?
Stephens: “Our automated online and phone services were available to customers, as they are every day, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Individuals are able to file or reopen a UI claim online by accessing eApply4UI, the secure, reliable, and fastest way to file or reopen a UI claim. After applying for benefits and establishing a claim, customers can also submit their required bi-weekly UI Continued Claim forms online instead of sending in the paper claim form through EDD’s Web-Cert service. For those who want to use the phone, our automated Tele-Cert system is also available. These options allow claimants to certify for UI benefits 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Our customer service centers were closed in observance of the State Legal Holiday.”
Q: What is the future plan for clearing up the claim backlog?
Stephens: “Dating back to EDD’s system launch, we have paid all individuals who were eligible to be paid through either regular processing or through the expedited processing method applied in late September to help us eliminate the certification backlog.”
Q: Were any EDD employees laid off or terminated under federal sequestration?
Stephens: “No, but the combination of sequestration cuts and existing federal UI administrative underfunding has adversely impacted EDD’s staffing levels, which continue to decrease due to attrition. Our hiring has been restricted to filling only critical needs within the Department. And when hiring is done, it’s only from within our existing workforce.”