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January 26, 2014
Editorial: Extend a simple courtesy by answering phone

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(Jan. 26 — By the Editorial Board)

California's unemployment rate fell last month to 8.3 percent, still far too high, and above the national rate.

What's truly appalling is that in a state that supposedly is favorably inclined toward labor, unemployed workers cannot get their questions answered when they call the Employment Development Department.

As the Los Angeles Times reported last week, and The Bee has reported in past months, people looking for work or trying to find out where their unemployment checks are cannot reach human beings at the department.

On any given day, as many as 90 percent of callers to the Employment Development Department seeking information about missed payments or unprocessed claims failed to reach a live worker, The Times reported, based on agency phone records it obtained.

During a three-month period ending Jan. 4, the department received an average of 3.9 million calls a week. Between 83 percent and 90 percent of those calls went unanswered on any given day, according to The Times.

Some callers did get through, but did so by dialing in 40 times or more.

Most often, callers got routed to recordings directing them to seek answers on the EDD website or get help through an automated self-service phone number, although those services are spotty, too.

The report comes four months after a failed computer upgrade delayed unemployment benefits for 150,000 Californians.

Employment development officials say they are unhappy with their performance and blame budget cuts. The federal government, which pays most costs associated with administering the unemployment insurance program, has reduced subsidies. The department responded by cutting 300 staffers in the past three months.

Gov. Jerry Brown proposes to provide $64 million to retain staff and pay overtime in an attempt to bring claims processing service back to its 2012 level.

EDD has employees answering phones from 8 a.m. to noon and assigns its employees to process claims in the afternoon. Perhaps it should consider extending the hours of phone service.

To be sure, society is ever-more automated. We pay bills online and use ATM cards rather than wait in line for bank tellers. But people who have no jobs through no fault of their own can be understandably short on patience. They deserve the simple courtesy of a live voice at the end of the phone.

We would hope state officials overseeing unemployment insurance are similarly impatient with their performance.