Californians applied for unemployment months ago. Some still haven’t gotten their money

California has a heavy backlog of unemployment claims, and the state’s unemployment office, called the Employment Development Department (EDD), received about 11 million calls in June, but most of those calls were not answered by a real person. That was all revealed during a budget hearing among California lawmakers and labor officials on Thursday. Meanwhile, at the federal level, the extra $600 per week in unemployment aid expires today.

Some people are still struggling to get their unemployment money, including Contra Costa County resident Astu Bah, a mother of two and a rideshare driver who hasn’t worked since March. 

She tells KCRW that she started her application for unemployment on March 15 and it finally went through the website on April 11. Two days later, she received a letter saying she qualified for unemployment, but her benefit was $0 because she was a rideshare driver, and Uber and Lyft didn’t provide EDD with drivers’ financial records. 

She says she appealed, sending EDD her 1099 tax document, proof of residency, and proof of citizenship — via USPS and fax. But she didn’t get a prompt response, so she kept calling EDD. 

“Just in one day, I made 700 calls to EDD. … I dialed them 700 times. No answer,” she says. “The machine kept answering and hanging up. I call back [sic]. My sister and I were just doing that. And then at the end of the day, we were tired, and we just gave up.”

She says she finally got through the phone with EDD on July 10. 

Meanwhile, she has a 4 year old and a 6 year old at home to support. She says her parents have sent her money from Africa to help. “[It’s] ridiculous because I’m the one supporting them,” she adds. 

She says sometimes she and her kids eat Costco pizza, which is huge and cheap, for lunch and dinner. “I just paid $10.99 and I have a huge pizza. That's how we've been, basically. I can’t even buy fruits for my kids. It’s ridiculous.”

Bah is an immigrant from Guinea, West Africa. Considering how tough it is to make ends meet in the U.S., has she considered moving back to her native country? 

“Yes, but how? Everything is closed. Airports are closed. Borders are closed. There's nowhere to go. I've thought about it. My parents [have] been telling me to go back. At least there, I have a roof over my head and I don't have to worry about rent.”

Does she think she’d be better off in Guinea than in the wealthy U.S.? “Definitely. Right now in this situation, definitely,” she responds. 

“That poor woman’s story is a story that we hear over and over and over again every day through people who call our district office and are desperate for help,” says Jay Obernolte, Republican Assemblyman representing parts of San Bernardino County. 

He explains why EDD has been so tough for state lawmakers to deal with: “Their primary problem is that they have an information technology system that is decades old, is badly in need of refurbishment, and has been ignored.”

He says in a perfect world, the U.S. unemployment system would work as follows: People would get the benefits by filing a claim online, and if they had to submit more documentation, they could do so electronically. The documents would be analyzed automatically, and the applicant’s claim would be approved. If their claim actually gets denied, they’d receive clear reasons for why that happened, and they wouldn’t need to get this information by talking to a real person. 

“That's the kind of system that we need, where people can get instant relief and instant access to their government. And that's the kind of system that we're miles away from having, unfortunately,” Obernolte says. 

He says the state legislature has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on trying to modernize EDD over the last decade — but to no avail. 

“Now hopefully, this is going to be a call to action to completely get rid of the old legacy system and build something new from scratch. … California has been the crucible of many of the leading technology companies in the world, such as Apple, Google, Facebook. And yet the fact that we're still dealing with a legacy system written in a computer language that's 50 years old, it just boggles the mind,” he says. 

Obernolte says Deloitte does all the IT for EDD, and they’ve been paid hundreds of millions of dollars to do so. “I think that we should give someone new a chance to see what can be done there. We have thousands of information companies that make their homes here in California that are young, nimble, small, hungry.”

EDD needs more staffing too. Obernolte explains that there’s one traditional call center that handles questions about unemployment claims. 

“That call center is only open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to noon. … We found out a couple of months ago when we complained about this. The EDD, in response, spun up a new call center that was staffed during traditional business hours. Unfortunately … that call center is only equipped to deal with very basic questions, and can’t answer specific questions about individual claims, which is, of course, the whole reason why people are calling.” 

He says he was infuriated on Thursday during the hearing when the EDD admitted that there were only 100 operators in the main call center. “Only 100 for the entire state of California, a state with over 40 million residents. That is unacceptable.”

Does Obernolte support the state's effort to pass a supplemental unemployment benefit? He says his first question about that is whether it’s legal. 

He explains, “Right now, the California unemployment insurance system is insolvent. We don't have a balance left in our trust fund because of the high levels of unemployment in the state. So we are borrowing billions of dollars from the federal unemployment system through a process called a Title XII loan. Those loans are loans that have to be paid back in the future. So it's not free money. 

And so my first question is: Is it legal for us to expand unemployment benefits here in California, and use those Title XII loans to backstop those expanded benefits? And that's something that we'd have to look into before we consider doing it.”

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin