How one state assemblywoman is trying to help constituents get unemployment benefits

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California's Employment Development Department has been buried under massive numbers of unemployment claims filed as the coronavirus rocked the state's economy. Photo credit: Al Franco/The Desert Sun via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The COVID-19 pandemic has put millions of Californians out of work. For many of them, that’s meant dealing with the Employment Development Department (EDD) to get benefits. The process is often a bureaucratic nightmare, with horror stories of people calling hundreds of times to get their benefits but are unable to get through. 

Next week, EDD will start processing new weekly payments to millions of unemployed Californians.

But it’s unclear whether the department has resolved the problems that have hamstrung it for the last few months. 

State Assemblymember Laura Friedman, whose district covers Burbank and Glendale, has been helping constituents navigate this convoluted system.  

KCRW: How are you feeling with the end of the session and what was  accomplished? Are you satisfied? 

Laura Friedman: “No, I'm not satisfied. There's a lot of work that we still have to do to protect tenants, to help with economic recovery, to monitor what's happening with the pandemic. … We should be having hearings over the fall to monitor the situation and to build consensus so that when we come back in January, we're ready to go.”

What bills failed that you really wanted to see pass?

“My biggest disappointment were two bills that dealt with plastic pollution and creating a market and circular economy for plastics. We've been working for two years on that legislation. Ben Allen and Lorena Gonzalez were the lead authors, and I was a principal co-author. I chaired the Natural Resources Committee, so I was very involved in helping try to get those bills through, and they failed by four votes in the assembly after passing. That was incredibly disappointing.”

What happened? 

“It failed by four votes due to the problem that you've got a lot of very big industry with very deep pockets. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying over the last few years. But there is some hope, which is a ballot measure that's been qualified for the ballot for 2022. It's actually a more draconian version of the bill. Maybe it will be enough to spur industry to work with us a little bit more next year if we reintroduce it. I think we have some authors that are feeling pretty beat up on our side, but I'm committed to getting this done. It's too important.” 

Let's turn to the problems with the EDD. Constituents have called the EDD hundreds of times and aren't able to get their benefits. What are you hearing from them? 

“Sometimes the EDD works for people, and many times it's just awful. We have opened over 800 cases. And that's outside of hearing from thousands of people. We have about 500 cases that are still unresolved and open in our office. My district staff works with these people [and their] cases. But it's not easy for us to resolve them. 

The EDD is overwhelmed. Their technology is ancient and completely unable to handle the influx of cases they're getting. Even simple things — like uploading information through a web portal — [are] not available to Californians because of how old the EDD equipment and processing is. So it's really been for many of my constituents a disaster.”

This has been going on for about five months. Has it gotten better?

“I'd say it's gotten marginally better. They have not been able to do an overhaul of their software and change how they process. They have hired more people, but they haven't always been able to keep up with the training. The phone still rings at EDD, and nobody answers for hours and hours and hours. 

People are stressed, they are desperate. And not being able to get a live person on the other end of the phone when they need someone to talk to is beyond frustrating and painful. They feel ignored. We tell our constituents to reach out to us. We can at least talk to people, tell them what to expect, try to walk them through the system. 

I have four staffers in the district and four in Sacramento who spend all their time trying to place those calls for constituents to EDD. They're frustrated, they are upset. I had a staff call not long ago where I had my staff kind of yell at me out of frustration because they have been unable to help some of their constituents. 

That's not why we all signed up to do this job. We want to be helping the public, so watching people be traumatized by this process is really disheartening. We've had people who have gone through the process only to be told that even though they mailed their paperwork on time, EDD didn't didn't open it on time. So their computer system automatically cancelled the claim, and they tell people to start over again. Can you imagine how that feels to someone who's waiting for their benefits?”

Is there anything the legislature can do to fix this?

 “I have sent letters to Governor Newsom and Secretary Su, as many of my colleagues and I had asked for an audit — along with my colleagues of EDD — so that we understand where it's breaking down. I've spoken to the governor's coordination legislative task force on this multiple times. 

I call my constituents directly. I spend my time just calling people who are in the process to say, 'We're here for you. We haven't forgotten about you. You matter to us. How are you doing?' Mostly we've been a conduit, but we lack the ability as legislators to go in and fix this right now. 

I will say the governor has put more money into the system. And I will also say that I don't think this is California's fault, necessarily. Yes, EDD should have been updated technologically over the years. In hindsight that would have been a good thing to do. But I would also argue that putting all of these people who are on pandemic relief through EDD in all the different states was maybe not the best way to do pandemic relief.”

What's your advice to constituents who are afraid and desperate? 

“If they're still waiting for benefits, and they haven't reached out to their elected representatives, their state senators and their assembly members, I would suggest doing that. We may not be able to solve the problem for you, but we will certainly fight for you. That's our job. And we have been able to close hundreds of cases in my office, and get people the benefits they deserve. 

That's not what my office was initially set up for, but that's what we've become, is an EDD casework office. So I would say first and foremost, ask for help. We are beginning some sort of recovery, and people are starting to go back to work, and that's a good thing to see. But we need to find ways of getting people back to work safely as quickly as we can, and the legislature needs to be meeting to explore all those options. I'd say hang in there. 

This is something we've never faced in my lifetime in the state of California. We will get through it. But I know that people are suffering. And it is really an awful feeling to watch what's been happening on the health front with people dying. I know people personally, I have family members who have died from COVID. We have to keep in mind that everything that we're doing is to protect people and protect people's lives. 

We also need to make sure that we take care of each other and that we stay together as a community. Don't let our tensions and our fears spill over to where we break apart as a community. People really rallied and came together in the beginning of the pandemic. People right now are fracturing and our communities are fracturing and I think are traumatized. We need to find ways to pull together.”

— Written by Erin Senne, produced by Rebecca Mooney

Credits

Guest:
Laura Friedman - State Assemblymember for District 43

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Angie Perrin