LOS ANGELES -- Barry Levine has blown through two-thirds of his life savings while waiting for his unemployment insurance claim to be processed. He figures that, by sometime in September, he will have nothing left.
In the 10 weeks since the 52-year-old freelance ad copywriter and occasional actor applied for benefits, he has called the California Employment Development Department "thousands of times," he said, just to reach a human being.
His application has gone missing in the overburdened state agency, which has processed 7.5 million unemployment claims since the pandemic sent the economy reeling in March -- nearly doubling the number filed during the worst full year of the Great Recession.
"It takes 150 redials before I get lucky and get someone on the phone," he said. "I would try when I had time, half an hour here, an hour there. I'm not getting through, but I see no other way to contact these people, and I'm unemployed. This sort of became my de facto job -- trying to get in touch with them to follow up the claim."
Social media are filled with horror stories about women and men like Levine who've been thrown out of work by the coronavirus and are fighting to navigate the EDD. They've peppered sites such as Reddit with hacks from the unemployment insurance battlefields on how to use the agency's seemingly impenetrable phone system. They've memorized customer service numbers and can recite chunks of EDD's recorded messages verbatim.
They've sent and resent copies of their most important documents -- passports, driver's licenses, W-2 forms, green cards, birth certificates, apartment leases, utility bills -- to verify their identities in hopes of speeding the process along. But they've often been met with radio silence and left to wonder: "Who was that guy who wouldn't give me his last name or phone number and I just sent everything to?"
Those who have filed unemployment claims in vain say dealing with the EDD feels like life with an emotionally abusive partner: They never know if their actions will be rewarded or punished. They live in constant anxiety and fear. The world is random, treacherous, without logic. A single mistake could mean disaster. And they cannot imagine a way out.
EDD spokeswoman Loree Levy said a big part of the agency's problem is "an unprecedented volume of callers dialing in multiple times, which clogs the phone lines."
In May, EDD reported receiving around 12 million calls a week from up to 645,000 individuals and was able to answer just 20% to 23% of the unique calls each week. In June, the agency recorded 11 million call attempts from 500,000 individuals and was able to answer 27% of the calls with a live service representative.
That month, @CaUnemployed cropped up on Twitter to highlight people's struggles with the agency; its creator is an unemployed hotel worker named Leah who called EDD 300 times in one day without ever getting through.