To those seeking jobless benefits, agency gave customer disservice

California Employment Development Department's lack of response to calls and emails from those filing for unemployment benefits fueled confusion and frustration amid case backlog.

Suzanne Dinatale lost her job as sales manager for a biotech company in July. She applied almost immediately for unemployment benefits to help cushion the blow.

Dinatale, 41, of Manhattan Beach, said she had no problem receiving the forms she needed to get the ball rolling with California's Employment Development Department.

"After that, nothing," she told me. "I called them and got hung up on. I sent emails that got no responses."

Dinatale is now dipping into her retirement savings to get by.

"This is the first time I've ever needed unemployment," she said. "I thought it was supposed to be a benefit, that it would be there if you need it. But I'm not seeing any help."

It's an experience that thousands of Californians have shared in recent weeks as the EDD grapples with the computer upgrade from hell, featuring Deloitte Consulting, the company handling the $110-million software switch-over, as Satan's little helper.

Technical glitches since Labor Day created a backlog in twice-monthly unemployment payments of tens of thousands of cases — as many as 300,000 cases by some estimates. Or roughly half that number by the EDD's reckoning.

That's tens of thousands of people not receiving the timely assistance they'd been promised to help pay the rent, buy food and generally survive amid shaky economic times.

The Assembly is scheduled to look into the matter Wednesday — not that this will help anyone now. The goal, said Henry T. Perea, a Fresno Democrat who chairs the Assembly's Insurance Committee, is to make sure a mess like this never happens again.

The EDD, for its part, said last week that most of its computer bugs finally have been squashed and that its new-and-improved processing system was up and running.

But I've heard from dozens of people in recent days who say they're still smarting from the runaround they received from government bureaucrats.

Allen Bryan, 61, of Carlsbad said he lost his job as a loan processor at Union Bank in September. Dealing with the EDD, he said, was like talking to himself.

"I could give them information, but I wouldn't get anything back," Bryan said. "I had no idea whether they were getting my stuff."

Jacqueline Cantalupo, 62, of La Quinta had a similar experience after she left her job as purchasing director for a medical-diagnostic company in July.

"I got my first unemployment check," she said. "After that, nothing. I tried phoning them. I tried emailing them. Nothing."

This was the main beef I heard again and again in my conversations with people who tried to navigate the EDD's obstacle course.

They understood that technology can sometimes stub its digital toes. What steamed their clams was the way the EDD kept benefit seekers at arm's length.

Emails weren't acknowledged. Claim forms weren't mailed out. The agency's phones simply went unanswered.

"I kept trying to call them," said Jake Olinka, 28, of West Los Angeles. "I just couldn't get through."

He lost his job at a drug-treatment center in August. He's since been running up the balance on his credit card while trying, in vain, to claim the unemployment benefits that by law should be his.

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