Why are unemployment checks months late? State audit aims to find out

Out-of-work Southern Californians have been waiting months for unemployment checks to arrive as the coronavirus pandemic rages and employed residents have mistakenly received piles of payments for which they didn’t ask.

Now fed-up lawmakers have demanded an emergency audit of the state agency that handles those claims, the Employment Development Department.

The respective chair and vice chair of California’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee, Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield; and state Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside; with the panel’s support, forwarded a directive to the state auditor this week to look into the matter.

Work on the audit, which will search for what’s causing the backlog and determine what should be done about it, will begin by the end of September, Salas said in a news release.

  • State Sen. Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, holds a stack of letters from the Employment Development Department that were mistakenly sent to people who live in her southwest Riverside County district. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Melendez)

  • Letters concerning state unemployment insurance sent to wrong addresses are spread on a table in the office of Sen. Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Melendez)

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  • State Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, is helping lead legislative demand for a probe into the state’s Employment Development Department. (File photo)

  • Riverside resident Thomas Reece holds letters from the Employment Development Department on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. The substitute teacher lost his jobs in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. He applied for unemployment but received no payments until June after getting help from state Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office also is looking into the problem.

“The magnitude of this is unprecedented,” Roth said by phone Thursday, Sept. 17.

According to Roth’s office, an estimated 1 to 1.2 million people potentially eligible for unemployment have been waiting months for payments.

Roth said 60% of calls placed to the department aren’t returned, and when employees do get back to callers, it’s often four to six weeks later.

Roth believes the problem isn’t the fault of department employees, but rather an antiquated computer system used for processing claims.

“This system has failed the people of California at a time of greatest need, and the status quo is simply unacceptable,” he said. “We have to fix it, and we have to fix it now.”

Roth said his office has received hundreds of calls from people frustrated by their inability to get help while they are out of work.

Every day the office of Assemblyman Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, receives calls from “desperate people” about the problem, Holden said in a statement.

“For six months now, the Employment Development Department’s inability to provide unemployment insurance benefits in a timely manner to qualifying Californians remains troublesome,” said Holden, who signed a Sept. 3 letter calling for an audit.

And, yet, he said, the need for such payments is “more urgent than ever before.”

State Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, who also signed the letter, said by phone that his staff has been working “all day” on cases involving unemployment benefits.

“Obviously, something is awry from a managerial standpoint,” Moorlach said.

Amanda McGuire, senior district representative for the Orange County senator, said more than half of the people she is helping are lost jobs and applied for benefits in March, and “have yet to receive a penny.”

Riverside resident Thomas Reece was one of many Southern Californians who lost jobs in March.

A substitute high school teacher who taught in Riverside and Corona, Reece said he immediately applied for relief but didn’t receive his first unemployment check until June.

“I called and called and called,” he said. “I tried to go online. And after about 30 days my (online) account with EDD just disappeared.”

He said he mailed letters and documents to the department on 10 to 12 occasions.

After getting nowhere for seven weeks, Reece reached out to Roth’s office. Four weeks later, he received the payment.

“It took an act of Congress, so to speak if you will, to get that,” he said.

Shonntae Young, of Moreno Valley, said she was working as a waitress at an Ontario restaurant when the pandemic struck, and she received a furlough letter March 6. Two days later, she said, she applied for unemployment.

Her payment came Aug. 24, Young said.

Thomas Dawson, a retired Army staff sergeant living in Murrieta, has been seeing another side of the problem.

Dawson said in the past three weeks he has received 155 pieces of mail from the Employment Development Department. His address was on each of the envelopes, but he said they were addressed to about 50 people he doesn’t know. He never applied for — and doesn’t want — unemployment.

“This is basically fraud that is going on here,” he said. “People need their money and they’re not getting it.”

Dawson said he tried to get the post office to send one letter back to where it came from, but it wound up back in his mailbox again.

So now, he said, he takes all the unemployment mail sent to him in error to the office of state Sen. Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore.

“I could easily throw these things away — throw them away like junk mail,” Dawson said, but he wants to do the right thing.

Melendez said her office has received hundreds of such letters from people living in her southwest Riverside County district.

“You would not be believe it,” she said. “And some of them have debit cards in them. Some of them have checks.”


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