Hundreds of thousands of Californians are still waiting for unemployment checks

California’s unemployment numbers are falling, but they’re well above pre-pandemic levels. Photo courtesy of the State of California.

Vin Olefer has been out of a job since last March. And even though they qualify for unemployment benefits, Olefer says they’re still waiting for a check.

“It makes you want to give up,” says Olefer, a student at Cal State Long Beach who uses they/them pronouns. “This is one of the many ways I think people are being left behind right now.”

Olefer is among the hundreds of thousands of California workers who are jobless, qualify for unemployment benefits and have applied, but still have not received their money, according to data from the California Employment Development Department (EDD). 

In interviews with KCRW, several workers eligible for benefits say they’ve experienced long wait-times when calling EDD, upwards of four hours. Others call the application process difficult to navigate. 

Why is it so hard for people to get their benefits?

Chas Alamo with the nonpartisan California Legislative Analyst's Office says EDD has been plagued with staffing shortages, problems training new hires, and an antiquated computer system.

“Without question, EDD’s reliance on outdated technology has hindered their ability to make quick program changes,” Alamo told a panel of state lawmakers late last year.

EDD says it plans to address the backlog in unpaid unemployment claims by the end of this month. 

But structural issues are not the only problems facing EDD. 

The department continues to deal with the fallout from a massive unemployment fraud scheme north of $2 billion. A federal investigation found claims had been filed and approved on behalf of prison inmates, children, and people who don’t live in California, among others.

EDD is also without a department leader. Last week, Governor Gavin Newsom appointed Rita L. Saenz to fill the vacant EDD director position after department veteran and former chief Sharon Hilliard retired. She held the top job for just over a year. The selection still needs approval from the state senate.