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Phone calls unanswered at states jobless agency
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SACRAMENTO  (AP) — Most callers needing help with unemployment benefits just get a recording at the California Employment Development Department, a newspaper reported Tuesday.

As many as 90 percent of callers seeking information about missed payments or unprocessed claims are directed to the department website or an automated self-service phone number instead of reaching a live worker, the Los Angeles Times said, citing agency phone records.

In many cases, the callers are redirected to options they already tried without success, the Times said.

"I'm overdue on every bill I have due to the negligence or incompetence" of the department, said Robert Rowe, a laid-off aerospace worker whose $450-a-week payments stopped in December.

Rowe, 55, said he's behind on mortgage payments and car payments and is having trouble paying for insulin to treat his diabetes.

"I haven't been able to get through to anyone," he said. "It's a chase-the-tail-in-a-circle thing."

The troubles with customer service follow the bungled debut of an upgraded computer system four months ago that delayed payments to about 150,000 people.

The department then began processing some claims by hand and reassigned employees from phone lines to speed up that effort. That placed further strain on a system that already limited workers to answering phone calls in the mornings so that they could perform other duties in the afternoon, the newspaper said.

From Oct. 6 to Jan. 4, the department received an average of 3.9 million calls a week, and 83 percent to 90 percent went unanswered by a live employee on any given day, according to agency phone records.

Some callers had to dial more than 40 times to reach an agent.

The federal government covers most of the state's cost to administer the unemployment insurance program, but deep cuts have reduced the department's staff from a high of 3,800 during the recession to 2,500 at the end of November, spokeswoman Loree Levy said.

Three hundred positions were lost in the past three months, Levy said.

"We are not happy about the limited phone service we offer our unemployment insurance customers," Levy said. "We are struggling to balance the demands of all workload items within the unemployment insurance program due to our significant federal underfunding issues."

Department Chief Deputy Director Sharon Hilliard promised to devise a plan to improve service by the end of March but it can't happen without more funding, she said in a Jan. 7 letter to state Assemblyman Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno, who chairs the Assembly Insurance Committee.

"We've got to get back to the place where we actually are dealing with calls in a timely manner," Perea said. "The only way we can do that is by hiring bodies."

Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget would provide $64 million to retain staff and pay overtime in an effort to restore service to its 2012 level.