Jerry Brown orders employment office to pay jobless claims first, check eligibility later

dsiders@sacbee.comSeptember 25, 2013 

With thousands of Californians still waiting for unemployment checks because of a state computer problem, the Brown administration has ordered the Employment Development Department to begin paying backlogged claims for continued benefits immediately – even before determining whether they are eligible for payment.

Marty Morgenstern, secretary of the state Labor and Workforce Development Agency, said Wednesday the extraordinary measure could eliminate a backlog of about 80,000 claims by Tuesday.

“I just felt it was an intolerable situation, and we’ve got to get people their money,” Morgenstern told reporters before an event in Oakland to celebrate Gov. Jerry Brown’s enactment of a bill to raise California’s minimum wage to $10 an hour by 2016.

Morgenstern told EDD Chief Deputy Director Sharon Hilliard in a memorandum the previous evening that without such action “it is unlikely that the claims backlog will be reduced quickly enough to respond to the very real financial hardship now being experienced by too many of our residents relying on timely payment of their UI benefits.”

Morgenstern said, “Consequently, I am directing EDD to immediately begin the process of paying backlogged claims for continued UI benefits prior to a final determination of eligibility.”

Final determinations of eligibility for backlogged claims “will have to be completed later and at that time EDD will act to recover any resulting overpayments that might occur,” the memo said.

Loree Levy, an EDD spokeswoman, said in an email late Tuesday night that Hilliard received Morgenstern’s memo and that EDD “will begin paying all backlogged UI claims without any further delays.” She said claimants who currently have claims in the backlog will begin receiving payments as soon as Thursday.

Alicia Riley, who lost her job in Sacramento as a medical assistant instructor and received one unemployment payment in August, said it would be “wonderful” to recieve money she’s been waiting on for nearly a month. A single mother of four, she has rent to pay for her Auburn condo and her power bill is already past due, she said.

“But I don’t necessarily believe at this point that I’ll see the money,” she said, because she thinks the state downplayed the scope of its computer snafu early on.

“I’m just having a hard time believing them,” she said.

EDD, which is upgrading its 30-year-old unemployment insurance processing system, said early last week that about 50,000 Californians had claims delayed after the department converted several years of old data into a new processing system over the Labor Day weekend. The problem quickly grew wider, however. By Friday, EDD said about 185,000 of the state’s nearly 800,000 people receiving benefits had been affected, with about 80,000 backlogged claims yet to be cleared.

The department put hundreds of employees to work over the weekend, hoping to put a significant dent in the backlog. The effort was largely unsuccessful. Though EDD said it cleared about 43,000 claims from the backlog over the weekend, and another 23,000 claims Monday and Tuesday, new claims replaced ones EDD cleared, and the backlog of submissions older than 10 days remained just under 73,000 on Wednesday.

On the department’s Facebook page, official explanations of the backlog and efforts to relieve it alternated with angry accusations of duplicity and ineptitude from the social media website’s visitors.

“They doctored those numbers,” wrote Facebook user Terry Stinnett. “You know they did.”

In an apologetic Facebook post late Tuesday, the department said it would immediately mail out notices to claimants with a backlogged certification to confirm their payments are in the queue.

“We hope that will help reduce incoming calls and emails from customers concerned we haven’t received their certifications,” the EDD post says, “allowing our limited staff the chance to focus on clearing our backlog.”

Morgenstern acknowledged what he said were “multiple steps” by EDD “to aggressively deal with backlogged certifications,” including redirecting staff from other program areas to help process claims and increasing overtime.

However, he said such efforts are unlikely to be sufficient. He said paying backlogged claims for continued unemployment benefits before a final determination of eligibility is consistent with U.S. Department of Labor guidelines.

“It is my expectation that this payment action along with the dedication of additional staff resources will expedite the elimination of the backlog and the payment of UI benefits to those most in need in the shortest possible time,” Morgenstern wrote.

Asked in Oakland whether the administration had moved quickly enough to intervene, Brown said, “I think they’re moving fast.”

The Democratic governor said EDD has been hampered by federal budget cuts.

“We all know about computers, they do break down,” he said. “The department will get those checks out just as quickly as they can.”

State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, said his office has fielded numerous telephone calls from claimants waiting for checks.

For those people who are unemployed, he said, “It’s awful.”

Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders

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