In world’s ‘tech capital,’ California’s unemployment system strains under load

Californians receiving unemployment insurance benefits will no longer have to certify every two weeks that they are still eligible for benefits, under a temporary directive issued by California Labor Secretary Julie Su.

“Over the last two days, the benefits system has slowed significantly due to the strain of so many claims, keeping Californians from accessing UI Online to file new claims and to certify for payments. This has threatened the ability of people to apply for benefits and our ability to pay benefits,” Su said in a statement Thursday evening.

In a press conference broadcast Friday on Facebook, she said, “I know this sounds crazy, because we’re in California, we’re the tech capital of the world, but our system is built on multiple antiquated systems,” so it is inflexible and hard to implement changes.

Su sent a memo to Employment Development Department Director Sharon Hilliard directing the department to suspend unemployment certifications for weeks ending March 14 through May 9. That covers “the most significant period of unemployment to date,” Su said Friday.

The move comes as California prepares to start taking applications Tuesday for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a new federally funded program for self-employed and other people who are not eligible for regular state unemployment benefits.

Some self-employed people have already filed for regular unemployment benefits and have been desperately trying to find out if they need to reapply for pandemic benefits. On Friday, Su said, “It is looking more and more like you will reapply” starting Tuesday and will not need to withdraw the previous application.

Crystal Page, a spokeswoman for Su, said the suspension of certification is partly to free up resources to deal with those applicants as well as those receiving regular unemployment benefits.

The state’s unemployment system has been straining under the weight of mounting job losses as a result of the coronavirus. For the week ending April 18, the state received 533,568 unemployment claims, compared to 44,729 roughly the same time last year. It was the third consecutive week of lower losses, however. The last week of March, more than 1 million Californians filed for unemployment.

Su said this “temporary emergency flexibility” is consistent with a state law (UIC section 1326.5) that says EDD can excuse a claimant’s failure to strictly comply with the certification requirement for “good cause.”

To continue receiving benefits, unemployed people normally certify online by answering questions about whether they worked, looked for work and were available for work during the past two weeks. The suspension “will help reduce the unprecedented server load on the UI Online system that created some intermittent access to some users,” Su said.


An earlier version of this story gave the wrong number for a staffed EDD phone line. It is 800-300-5616.

The EDD has posted a notice explaining the temporary suspension on its website. It will continue issuing regular payments during this period. However, people receiving benefits must “notify the EDD immediately if they return to work during this time period.”

On April 15, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that EDD would launch a call center “that will operate 7 days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The Unemployment Insurance Branch will be upstaffed with 1,340 employees, including 740 EDD employees and 600 employees from across state government.”

The new phone number, 833-978-2511, went live Monday. However, many callers received only a recording that started with: “The following is an informational message. At the end of the message the phone will hang up.”

Page said EDD is still staffing up that phone line. “We have had several different versions of a voicemail. One said call back later. People were frustrated (when they heard that) so we modified it,” she said.

Su said that line is staffed with service reps who can answer general questions but will not have access to the caller’s claim or payment information.

For that they will need to call 800-300-5616, which is staffed with representatives on weekdays from 8 a.m. until noon. The department also has an “automated self-service line, 866-333-4606,” which is always available.

Kathleen Pender is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Email: Twitter: @kathpender

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