Delayed Unemployment Benefit Checks For 110K+ Californians Due This Week

The long awaited Unemployment benefit checks are due to arrive this week for over 110,000 Californians Denis C. Theriault has more:

Nearly six weeks after Washington again extended unemployment benefits, some 119,000 Californians struggling to keep food on the table have yet to see a penny of that promised relief.

At fault is an aging state computer system, still undergoing triage from programmers to help it process the latest extension.

But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration has decided those jobless residents should wait no longer. Officials decreed that checks will hit the mail starting this week — even as work to update the Employment Development Department’s cumbersome 1980s-era database continues.

Previously, officials were crossing their fingers that checks would arrive before Christmas, after new claim forms were sent out and returned. Now those claims will be filed automatically, with checks sent out at the same time.

Any overpayments or mistakes will be corrected later, said Doug Hoffner, the state’s undersecretary of Labor and Workforce Development.

“We’re at the point where we can move forward,” Hoffner said, noting that other states are in similar straits. “The important thing is to get the benefits out to those folks who need it most.”

While the sudden arrival of the checks might help save the holidays for some, it may come too late for many others. About 93,500 of those eligible for the extension, which Congress approved early in November, lost their benefits sometime between August and December. Some have been forced onto the streets or into shelters since then.Assemblyman Jim Beall, D-San Jose, joined the Schwarzenegger administration in calling the delay “unacceptable.” He said his office — like others throughout the state — had been contacted by desperate constituents wondering when their checks might arrive.

“First they lose their jobs, and then they have their benefits delayed,” Beall said.

The lag has become the latest in a series of woes for the beleaguered Employment Development Department, which is contending with hundreds of thousands of benefit recipients amid California’s worst unemployment rate in modern times — 12.5 percent.

The department’s toll-free hotline still rejects millions of calls each month, offering a curt message explaining the line’s too busy. Calls have spiked over the past few months amid questions about the benefits extension.

“You can never actually get to a person,” complained Margot Liggett Nack, 37, of San Jose, who spent months trying to solve a disruption in her benefits after her son was born this summer. “It’s a morass. You have no idea if they’re going to contact you, or if you’re supposed to contact them.”

In addition, appeals of denied unemployment claims are piling up. And the state is paying out billions more in benefits than it collects in taxes from employers, forcing it to borrow billions from the federal government to keep payments coming.

Last month’s extension, the fourth since the economy collapsed, provides an additional 14 weeks of checks for the state’s longest-term unemployed. Before its approval, unemployment benefits had been capped at 79 weeks.

As of last month, about 740,000 people were receiving weekly checks, out of some 1.2 million people receiving some benefits from the Employment Development Department.

Loree Levy, a spokeswoman for the department, said last week that programmers wrote 500,000 new lines of code — in old-fashioned COBOL — for the department’s database. Since then, officials have spent days making sure the changes won’t cause glitches elsewhere in the system.

The department received about $66 million from the U.S. Labor Department in 2003 to update pieces of its information technology infrastructure — a fraction of the $300 million a new system would cost.

This year, the department received an additional $60 million to boost staffing for its call center, improve the way it processes payments and forms and upgrade its Web site (www.edd.ca.gov).

Some of those improvements — such as the ability to submit forms online and to receive checks via direct deposit — are due to come online this summer, Levy said. In the meantime, more and more updated information is being added to the Web site.

The more people who go through the Web, she stressed, the fewer who fill up the call center: “No need to wait on the phone!”

Will the checks actually arrive on time, or will the unemployed continue to struggle with little to no money in California?

Source: http://www.mercurynews.com/breaking-news/ci_13980450?nclick_check=1

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