A computer problem delaying unemployment benefits for thousands of Californians has grown far wider in recent days, with an increasing number of people left unpaid and the state backing off its claim the issue might be resolved by week’s end.
The Employment Development Department said Friday that about 185,000 of the state’s nearly 800,000 people receiving benefits had been affected, with the department having yet to clear about 80,000 of those cases.
Frustration flared as the week dragged on, with jobless residents repeatedly dialing the department’s customer service line and failing time after time to reach an agent.
Liz Gardner, of Chico, said her telephone has been disconnected while waiting since Labor Day for a $436 check.
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“Rent’s coming up on the 1st,” she said. “I have a late payment on my credit card.”
The employment department, which has been working for months to upgrade its 30-year-old unemployment insurance processing system, said earlier this 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 department said Tuesday it had cleared about 15,000 of those claims and hoped to finish the rest by the end of the week.
By Friday, however, the department reported its backlog had grown to about 80,000 claimants. In total, about 185,000 Californians so far have been affected by an error in the Labor Day conversion, in which old data came with “stop pay” flags that interfered with some legitimate claims.
Loree Levy, an EDD spokeswoman, said the state could not estimate when the problem will be resolved. She said hundreds of employees will work on the backlog over the weekend, when few new claims are filed and employees can focus on claims that are more than 10 days old.
“We think that we’re going to be able to see these numbers coming down significantly over the course of this weekend,” she said.
The problem is significant enough it affected weekly reporting of initial jobless claims by the U.S. Department of Labor. In data released Thursday, the federal government said initial claims in California decreased by 25,412 in the week ending Sept. 7, an unusually steep decline.
While New York, Florida and Pennsylvania submitted comments suggesting claim decreases in their states were due to fewer layoffs in various industries, California attributed the decline to “Labor Day holiday and computer system updates.”
Even before the latest computer problem arose, the employment department had difficulty processing jobless claims. A state audit in November found the state failed to meet federal standards for timeliness in processing claims, taking longer than 40 other states.
The audit said that in the 2011-12 budget year, nearly one of every four calls to EDD could not get through.
At an employment center in Stockton on Friday, Amber Adair scrolled through her cellphone history and said she called EDD 82 times one day last week without getting through, and 20 times on Wednesday with the same result.
Adair, 31, was laid off from her job at a call center last year.
“It was almost like entering the gates of hell having to work with EDD,” she said.
The new computer project is part of a nearly $188 million system upgrade designed to let residents submit certifications for unemployment insurance benefits online or by telephone, among other efficiencies. The department said on its website that the program would streamline the claim review process.
The California Department of Technology has rated the project as “fairly healthy” in recent reviews. Yet the current disruption recalled years of problems the state has had with technology projects, including the abandonment of a quarter-billion state payroll system upgrade earlier this year.
John Thomas Flynn, California’s first chief information officer under Gov. Pete Wilson, said such problems hurt employee morale and contribute to public skepticism about state government.
“This is death by a 1,000 cuts by another problematic IT project in California,” he said. “It really, I think, calls for a full-scale review of some of these major projects.”
Levy said problems following the Labor Day transition are temporary and that, “We’ve just got to get this one-time issue cleared up.”
EDD apologized for the delay on its website, saying employees are “working around the clock and through the weekends” to fix the problem. It said it has been “limited by a staffing shortage created by reduced federal funding.”
The department urged claimants to go online “to avoid the frustration of trying to get through to a representative by phone.”
Meanwhile, unemployed Californians complained about the delay and the department’s handling of their claims, including on the department’s Facebook page. While EDD posted official updates on the social media site, one commenter whose profile indicates she is a department employee infuriated some claimants when she wrote, “How many jobs did you apply for while waiting for a manager to call you back?”
In Chico, Gardner, 48, said she received a job offer Thursday for a part-time sales position in Palo Alto.
She plans to accept the position while looking for full-time work. Still, Gardner said she will have to borrow money from family members to put gas in her 1998 Toyota Sienna to reach her new place of employment.
“I got a job, thankfully,” she said. “But I don’t have the gas money to get to the job because of this snafu.”