With an unemployment rate of 9.4% in March, the third highest in the nation,… (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)
SACRAMENTO — Want help from the state getting unemployment benefits? Don't call after noon.
Because of federal budget cuts, the California Employment Development Department has told its call center workers not to answer its benefits hotline after lunch. Starting Monday, the thinning band of staffers will be reassigned to other duties from noon to 5 p.m., such as processing claims for benefits and responding to online inquiries.
Limiting call center hours was the best of a number of bad choices, department spokeswoman Loree Levy said.
"We're already having difficulties answering the phones. There's just not enough staff to go around," she said. "What we're hoping to do with this move is concentrate the limited staff we have in the morning, and in the afternoons focus on the priority of processing and paying benefits."
She urged claimants to use "self-help" options, including filing claims on the department's website at http://www.edd.ca.gov or visiting the agency via Facebook, Twitter or You Tube.
Cutting back the call center hours will make life harder for the jobless, said Jesus Mendiola of West Covina, who was laid off late last year from his job at a closed Hostess bakery. "It won't be very helpful," he said. "Imagine if everybody is trying to call at once. It will be quite difficult to speak to anyone."
With an unemployment rate of 9.4% in March, the third highest in the nation, California runs a program that pays as much as $450 a week in benefits to about 1 million jobless Californians. The EDD handles applications for benefits, rules on eligibility and processes payments.
But administration costs for the program are paid by the federal government, and $158 million of that money is being cut as part of the so-called sequester of funds. Last month, the state had to trim jobless benefits for the same reason.
Cuts also are forcing an 18% drop in benefits for approximately 400,000 long-term unemployed workers in California that began late last month. California's weekly benefits average $297.
The EDD hotline handles calls of all kinds about jobless benefits: how to get them; how much money recipients can get, and, often, why they didn't get the amount they expected.
Staffing at the unemployment insurance program is down by 900 people since 2010 because of a hiring freeze and attrition, Levy said
The hotline has been controversial for years because it is usually busy.
The EDD's call center system, though never up to date, has been hard hit by the Great Recession of 2008-09 and its lingering aftermath. A California Bureau of State Audits survey in March 2011 found that 84% of people calling failed to get through to someone at a call center.
The EDD's fully staffed phone system, as bad as it was, will be a lot worse once its hours of operation are halved, said Maurice Emsellem, policy co-director of the National Employment Law Project. The Oakland group advocates for low-income workers and the jobless.
"People already are having a hard time navigating the system and accessing their benefits," he said.
That gets even harder if a jobless person has limited English language skills, is elderly and not comfortable with computers or has an extremely complicated claim problem to sort out, Emsellem said.
"Now is not the time to remove the human element from the program," he said, "and that is what they are doing by cutting back the hours."