February 27, 2021

News West

West Coast News Network

California lawmakers propose slate of reforms for EDD

After a pair of scathing audits confirmed California’s troubled unemployment agency has been plagued by years of mismanagement, state lawmakers on Thursday announced a raft of new bills to speed up the payment of jobless benefits and reduce fraud.

The package of bills proposed by nine Assembly members is aimed at forcing change at the state Employment Development Department, which was criticized by the state auditor last week for delays in providing unemployment benefits despite having been warned of problems in the system a decade ago.

The proposals would allow benefits to be provided by direct deposit rather than issued with debit cards sent through the mail, require the agency to check claimants against lists of prison inmates to prevent fraud and establish an Office of the Claimant Advocate to help people with claim problems.

“Many of the issues EDD is facing today have been known since the Great Recession,” said Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco). “Almost nothing was done to fix the problems or plan for another economic downturn.”

The EDD has been slow to respond to an unprecedented flood of unemployment benefit applications that resulted from the state shutting down much of the economy to stop the COVID-19 pandemic that began nearly a year ago.

Though EDD Director Rita Saenz told lawmakers on Wednesday that she is committed to implementing improvements to the agency recommended by the state auditor and a strike team of government experts appointed last year by Gov. Gavin Newsom, skeptical lawmakers in both parties have introduced 20 bills in recent weeks in an attempt to more quickly address problems. They include legislation by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez’s (D-San Diego) that would provide claimants with the option to receive their unemployment benefits via direct deposit to their bank accounts.

Currently, most jobless Californians are mailed a debit card that contains benefit payments, but the cards have proven vulnerable to being stolen or redirected to addresses used by fraudsters — more than 460,000 cards have been frozen by their issuer, Bank of America pending investigations of possible fraud.

California is one of just three states in the country that does not offer a direct deposit option, which can also help eliminate delays created by sending debit cards through the mail, Gonzalez said.

“Widespread problems with EDD’s debit cards have prevented countless working families from putting food on the table or paying bills during this difficult year,” she said.

A similar bill has also been introduced by a group of Republican lawmakers led by Assemblyman Smitty Smith of Apple Valley. In addition, legislation by Assemblywoman Laurie Davies (R- Laguna Niguel) would provide for chip-enabled benefit cards to further increase security.

After a state audit last week found more than $800 million in benefits were paid to claims filed in the names of prison inmates, many of whom had their identities stolen, Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach) introduced a bill that would require the EDD to cross match claims with lists of incarcerated people. A similar bill has been introduced by Republican Senate Leader Shannon Grove of Bakersfield.

The EDD began cross-checking information late last year, but only after months of saying it could not legally access prison information. Lawmakers want to make the practice permanent in state law.

Petrie-Norris has also introduced legislation to create a create an Unemployment Insurance Oversight Advisory Board to regularly review the EDD’s operations and make recommendations for improvements.

Legislation from Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) would create an Office of the Claimant Advocate within the EDD to help Californians get resolutions to problems with the unemployment system.

Lawmakers have also heard complaints in recent months reporting that people who do not speak English or Spanish have had difficult filing claims and getting help in languages they speak. Chiu has introduced a bill that would require better language support.

“The lack of language access at EDD is not only upsetting, but it is also a matter of civil rights,” Chiu said.

Lawmakers also said they are pushing a $55-million budget proposal to fund a task force of local and state law enforcement agencies created late last year to address the widespread fraud.

Republican lawmakers including Assembly Minority Leader Marie Waldron of Escondido have introduced a bill that would set a 30-day deadline for approving claims and require EDD to notify those whose claims are not approved in time how long the delay will be and the reason for the delay.

Jobless Californians also must certify every two weeks that they are eligible to continue receiving benefits, and many have complained that the forms to do so are confusing, noting that a simple mistake can stop benefits.

Assemblyman Chad Mayes, an independent from Yucca Valley, said Thursday he has introduced a bill that would make sure people who accidentally answer a certification question incorrectly and are sent an overpayment are not locked out of their employment benefits.

“Applying for benefits through EDD is a confusing process and it shouldn’t be,” Mayes said.

All of the legislation will now go through committee hearings in the coming weeks and require approval of the Legislature and the governor.