This is Part 2 of a series on the EDD. Part 1, an interview with Spokesman Dan Stephens, is here.
Just after the Labor Day weekend, the California Employment Development Department released a $100 million computer upgrade. It crashed.
Without warning, 150,000 jobless Californians were cut from unemployment benefits. The EDD blamed a computer glitch and said it would take weeks to fix.
November hearings in the Legislature produced promises to fix the system. In response, Henry Perea, D-Fresno, the chairman of the Insurance Committee, sent a letter to EDD Director Hilliard demanding fixes by Dec. 31. Perea identified five improvement areas:
1. “Update the criteria for scheduling determinations due to untimely certifications,” so unemployment claimants are not burdened with ongoing unnecessary work and delays;
2. ”Update the criteria for scheduling determinations due to attending school or job training,” to prevent benefit delays;
3. “Improve communications with claimants.” The EDD has been moving to more of a self-service claims system, but had not provided claimants with the necessary tools;
4. “Translation of documents and websites.” The EDD website has only a few pages in Spanish, and virtually none in other languages. If the goal is a self-service model, the EDD must help those with limited English language abilities access multiple languages on the site.
5. “Call center service improvement.” The call centers historically have been problematic, time consuming “and perhaps the most frustrating and time consuming for ongoing UI claimants.” Even under “normal” conditions, “claimant access to call centers goes from bad to impossible.”
Hearings in the new year will determine how the fixes are doing. But three months after the computer crash, the EDD’s own Facebook page remains clogged with complaints about delays in benefits.
I also called the EDD’s phone line. It refers claimants to the online computer system. Then the computer system directs claimants to call. It’s a computerized Catch-22.
Background: How the problem started
As the countdown to Dec. 31 continues, I compiled some background on what happened.
The post-Labor Day “malfunction” created a huge backlog of claims. California Labor Secretary Marty Morgernstern ordered EDD officials to pay the unemployment claims immediately, and check eligibility later.
An EDD employee whistleblower, who claimed to work daily on the broken program, warned supervisors and coworkers that the new EDD computer system “was slow, had glitches and was not ready to be released,” Sacramento’s News 10 reported in October. Documents showed that the $100 million “California Unemployment Benefit Services system,” or CUBS, built by EDD and contractor Deloitte Consulting, was never working correctly.
“An EDD employee said managers even took time a few days before CUBS was released to let everyone know how proud they were,” News 10 said. ”‘We had parties. We had celebrations. We had contests,’ the employee said. ‘We all knew it wasn’t gonna go live. When it actually did go live we were shocked.’”
In emails released by the EDD in October, News 10 reported EDD Representative Adolfo Jimenez responded to one of those “Congratulations” emails with, “Don’t pat yourselves on the back don’t congratulate yourself nor others. CUBS does not work.”
News 10 reported in a follow up email, Jimenez’s boss Donald Owens wrote, “Mr. Jimenez has been counseled regarding the nature of the email and the proper chain of command.”
The initial outcry from unpaid claimants was so big, the Assembly Insurance Committee conducted an oversight hearing on Nov. 6. EDD representatives showed up in force and some apologized for the blunder. (The hearing video is available on The California Channel.)
However, EDD Chief Deputy Director Sharon Hilliard claimed the media reported “inaccuracies” as to what caused the delays. Hillard said the massive backlog was resolved only after EDD staff worked overtime to make manual fixes to the system.
“We underestimated the amount of effort needed to stay on top of that,” said Shell Culp, chief deputy director at the state Office of Systems Integration. Her agency was responsible for managing the computer upgrade project. Culp said the agency knew there were problems with the computer upgrade but failed to predict the backlog of claims the glitch created.
By Nov. 8, the EDD posted information on its website on indicating the problem had been fixed. As of mid-December, the message still says:
“Updated November 8, 2013, 4:30 p.m.
“The EDD is working to complete the transition to a new upgraded payment processing system as quickly as possible. We are supplying continual updates on our progress and are providing recommendations to our claimants, including how they can help us expedite this effort with the submission of their certifications for continuing benefits. For more information and updates on the new payment processing system and how it may affect you, visit the New Upgrades for the UI System page.”
Soon the Legislature will investigate and render its own judgment.