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Overwhelmed by New Jobless

Economy: The state's unemployment offices are facing a rush of applicants spurred by a recent benefits hike.

January 11, 2002|MARLA DICKERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jobless Californians applying for first-time unemployment insurance claims this week have swamped the phone lines and offices of the state's Employment Development Department, which is struggling to keep up with the flood of applicants.

State officials link this week's surge to a recent hike in unemployment benefits that will boost the checks of some out-of-work Californians by as much as $100 a week beginning this month. Because the higher benefits apply only to new claims filed after Jan. 6, some workers laid off in late 2001 held off filing for unemployment benefits until now to take advantage of the higher payments.

The EDD recorded more than 15,000 new claims Monday, said agency Director Michael Bernick. That's 25% more than the comparable day a year ago and almost triple the volume seen on some days during the holiday lull. In contrast, new claims in the last week of December were only about half what they were during the first week of the month.

"People were waiting" to qualify for the increased benefits, Bernick said. "No question."

Bernick said the agency knew the rush was coming and recently hired 300 additional workers to help process the growing claims load. But this week's crush of calls and some malfunctioning phone lines at the agency's telephone processing centers Monday and Tuesday have led to frustrating busy signals and voicemail recordings for many unemployed.

Laid-off maintenance worker Luis Wilson went to the downtown Los Angeles EDD office Wednesday seeking help after more than a dozen failed attempts to apply for benefits over the phone.

"I kept getting a recording telling me to call back later," Wilson, 32, said. "But my rent is coming up. I need to talk to someone now."

California's jobless benefit claims, like those in the rest of the nation, have been climbing all year because of the economic slowdown. But the aftermath of Sept. 11 has brought a sharp spike in joblessness in California, whose giant travel and tourism industry has been walloped. From mid-September through late December, more than 900,000 claims for unemployment benefits were filed in California, a 20% increase over last year, according to the EDD.

The strain has taxed the resources of the agency, which is laboring to keep up with the load. The burden appears to have gotten even heavier this week with the burst of new claims.

Known as SB 40, the legislation mandating the benefits increase was passed by the California Legislature just a few days after Sept. 11 and signed by Gov. Gray Davis on Oct. 1. It authorizes the first unemployment benefits increase for Californians in a decade--as much as $2,600 extra for some workers over the maximum payout period of 26 weeks, beginning with new claims in 2002.

Davis and other public officials had hailed the benefits boost as a way to help workers hurt economically by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The irony is that the very workers hit immediately by the post-attack fallout are among those least likely to benefit, unless they had sufficient savings to hold off filing until after Jan. 6, when the increase took effect.

Some officials are scrambling to address that inequity. In his State of the State address Tuesday, Davis said he'll push to make the benefits retroactive to Sept. 11.

In the meantime, the EDD's phone system, which was set up in the mid-1990s to replace the unemployment lines of old, has been barraged with calls.

"We're being inundated," the EDD's Bernick said. "We're receiving more calls than the system can handle."

In addition to the increased call volume, Bernick said the system has been hampered by technical difficulties. EDD officials said half of the state's six call centers were down for about three hours Monday, and five of six centers couldn't accept incoming calls for as long as two hours Tuesday.

Bernick said that those technical problems have been fixed but that the call volume remained heavy Wednesday because of the backlog of filers who couldn't get through earlier in the week.

Some of the EDD's 400-plus offices around the state also are seeing a boost in foot traffic from filers fed up with busy signals. These offices no longer process unemployment claims. But Bernick said staff there can provide applicants with claim forms and assistance in filling them out. The EDD offices also will fax the completed forms to the proper processing centers.

Marie Quinn, manager of job services at the EDD's downtown Los Angeles office, said a dozen people were lined up outside the facility a half-hour before its 8 a.m. opening Wednesday.

"I haven't seen lines for years," Quinn said. "People are telling us they've been having difficulty with the phone system.... It's been crazy."

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