Chief of state unemployment insurance program gets back to basics

Patrick Henning's mission: Straighten out what was becoming an embarrassing mess at the EDD

It's "back-to-basics" time at the state unemployment insurance program, where a new director, more staff and fewer computer problems are reviving a troubled agency.

Although the Employment Development Department's many critics are taking a wait-and-see attitude, improvements seem to be taking hold.

With hundreds of newly hired or retained workers on duty, EDD says it now answers more than 7 of 10 calls from claimants rather than automatically disconnecting callers before they speak to a real person.

The large number of delayed eligibility interviews has dropped by more than half since February. And an upgraded computer system is performing better, if not perfectly, after delaying payments to about 150,000 jobless Californians last fall.

"For us, it's getting back down to the basics of what we do, making sure people get paid their benefits on time," Director Patrick W. Henning Jr. said. A former appointments official in the governor's office, he was named to his new position March 21 by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The improvements came after Brown sent Henning to head the department and another top aide, David Lanier, to run the parent Labor and Workforce Development Agency. Their mission: Straighten out what was becoming an embarrassing mess at the EDD, which provides benefits to about half a million out-of-work Californians.

The department's problems were the subject of many consumer complaints and several legislative hearings. Lawmakers asked the state auditor to look at some of the EDD's activities.

In his short time on the job, Henning said he's tried to upgrade the services provided by his department, which had earned a reputation for being impossible to contact and unresponsive to often angry complaints from the public. The new director said he's gotten personal emails from the jobless and even one death threat since taking over about a month ago.

A sure, but perhaps unscientific, sign of improvement, he noted, is that complaints and inquiries from state legislators on behalf of frustrated, out-of-work constituents are way down.

Henning, 41, comes from a long line of labor union leaders and his father once headed the same department he now runs. His Sacramento office is highlighted by a 3-foot-long, 25-pound wrench once owned by his great-grandfather, a pipe fitter.

In an interview, Henning said he's heartened by the short-term improvements and is pressing ahead with firm goals:

•processing all claims for weekly benefits of up to $450 within three days of receipt;

•responding to online inquiries within five days of receipt;

•scheduling 95% of eligibility determinations in a timely manner;

•answering 50,000 calls a week with human operators, not machines.

So far, Henning is getting high marks from Assembly Insurance Committee Chairman Henry T. Perea (D-Fresno), a sharp EDD critic who persuaded the Legislature to order the state auditor to probe some of EDD's eligibility decision-making.

"I think they're making a tremendous amount of progress," Perea said. "The governor has laid out goals that he wants to accomplish, and we'll hold the administration accountable once the funding is given to the department."

Making those goals happen is going to take money.

The governor's latest budget proposal for the spending year that begins July 1 would give the EDD an extra $67.6 million to run the unemployment insurance system. Much of the funding is to add 300 people and pay overtime to others to handle claims and answer the phones. About half of the new workers already are hired.

But not everything is going swimmingly at the EDD, both Henning and critics of the agency say.

The state auditor is doing a top-priority probe of EDD's eligibility decision-making process and examining why judges at the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board have been overturning more than half of EDD staffers' initial denials of claims.

Advocates for the unemployed and working poor say they're troubled by an April 29 board internal announcement that it plans to lay off at least 50 judges, about a quarter of the total, by Sept. 1.

"We're seriously concerned with the proposed large-scale layoffs of UI [unemployment insurance] appeal judges," said Maurice Emsellem, co-policy director of the National Employment Law Project, "especially after all the hard work that went into finally reducing the appeal delays, which impose extreme hardships on unemployed families."

Henning referred questions about the layoffs to the governor's office, which said the reduction was based on declining unemployment.

Other potential problems at the EDD include delays in the promised implementation of a "virtual hold" feature on the department's phone system. It would enable callers to leave their numbers and get a timely call back. The idea is to replace the current system of directing callers through a maze-like phone tree that often hangs up on them.

Henning said he hopes to have a virtual-hold system up and running by the end of this year.

Also still on hold is a more ambitious plan to enable applicants and recipients to file for benefits and perform other operations from their home computers. Originally scheduled to start in March, this has been put off to an undetermined date, Henning said.

"The unemployed have gone through too much to put out a system that is not 100%," he said, recalling the "chaos" that followed the rollout of the upgraded computer system in September.

"We want to make sure," Henning said, "that when we do this again, it's done right."

Twitter: @MarcLifsher

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