Californians who believe their unemployment benefit claims have been wrongly denied are facing significant delays in having their appeals addressed during the COVID-19 pandemic, waiting an average of 92 days for assistance — more than double the wait time before the pandemic put millions of residents out of work.
The sluggish appeals process marks another setback for the the state after its beleaguered Employment Development Department was overwhelmed by a record-setting 20 million filings since the pandemic began, leading to state audits that showed poor planning by the agency slowed the approval of millions of claims and made it vulnerable to widespread fraud.
When claims are denied or disqualified, people can file an appeal with the EDD, which reviews the arguments before sending cases they deny to the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board for a final decision. The board is independent from the EDD, although both offices operate under the umbrella of the state Labor and Workforce Development Agency.
Appellants argue their case to an administrative law judge employed by the appeals board, and that judge's decision can be appealed a second time to the five-member board appointed by the governor and the California Legislature.
The number of claims sent to the state appeals board in September through December was double what it was before the pandemic, and 50% higher last month than pre-pandemic levels, according to Michael Cutri, executive director and chief administrative law judge for the board. Last year, Cutri's agency was sent 223,389 appeals, up from 175,382 sent the year before.
Dan Reeves, the vice chairman of the board, said that the flood of unemployment claims and appeals has been a challenge for the agency, even as it has increased staff and tried to make other improvements in the face of growing demand.
"I know that progress is slow-going, but this is an enormous crisis," Reeves said during a Wednesday board meeting.
California is currently not meeting the U.S. Department of Labor standard that says 80% of appeals should be acted on within 45 days and 60% within 30 days. From April through January, the board completed action on 53% of claims within 30 days.
State officials note that 46 other states are also not meeting the timeliness standard, which could result in a penalty requiring a corrective action plan for the following year, including additional reporting.
"The judges and staff are working as quickly as possible to resolve UI appeals once received from EDD," said Board Chairman Marty Block, a former state senator from San Diego.