Six people seated at a bank of phones against a wall repeat their Social Security numbers into receivers. Some whisper behind cupped hands. Some use their normal voices, making eavesdropping at your nearest unemployment office easier than stealing mail for identity theft.
If you’ve already filed a claim and have a question unanswered online, the fastest solution, you hope, may be to show up at your local office. But be prepared to go over to that bank of phones to call the unemployment office from … within the unemployment office.
It’s like when you go to your bank to cash a check; ask about your credit card, and the teller directs you to a phone inside the bank … so you can call the bank. You’ve already forgotten that the bank’s greeter offered you coffee and stale cookies.
To save money, the state Employment Development Department (EDD) did away with walk-in service, where you could meet with specialists, a decade ago. EDD workers answer phones from eight or nine centers around the state. Last year, the department reports receiving more than 250 million calls, many through the automatic “redial” feature on home telephones.
At the central EDD office off Broadway in Sacramento, phones connecting to the 800 numbers are in a room with rows of chairs. There is only one woman behind the counter, who directs you to the phone room or to an adjoining area, where you can communicate with EDD via computers. You notice that when one person hangs up a receiver, the next seated person stands, and you move one seat. If the progression falters, a male guard appears to remind you.
Today, it takes about two-and-a-half hours to advance to a phone. You will have the information you came for an hour after that.
Meanwhile, you try to comfort a middle-aged man who is sliding from chair to chair with you, his head hung forward.
“How long have you been here?” you ask.
“Three hours…My company president was a pill popper and messed up our unemployment. I haven’t had any money for seven months.”
How does he live?
“Crying, talking to myself, going out of my mind….”
His voice starts to quiver and rise just as a phone becomes available.
The man to his left on the line of phones throws his baseball hat backwards and buries his head in his arm. “I was on for an hour and the phone line disconnected,” he says, moaning into his sleeve.
Behind, a young man in a slouch holds his stomach. He missed breakfast and lunch and it’s 2 p.m. “I’m starving, but afraid to leave the line,” he confides.
A woman with magenta hair and freckles turns around and shoves her purse toward him. She points and mouths the word, “F-I-S-H.”
He digs his hand inside and comes up with cheesy, orange crackers. Crumbs flaking around his lips, he mouths, “THANK YOU!” and licks his fingers.
A voice over the public address system announces that when you pick up the phone, an automated voice may say, “Welcome.” If that happens, dial extension 104. If the line is busy, hang up and try again. It could take multiple attempts to get another message urging you to hold on—“it could be about seven minutes.”
Beside you, the man with the druggie former boss is now standing and yelling into the phone: “Because he loused up and you loused up, I’ve lost my house, car, girlfriend, and now I’m homeless. I know it sounds like a country song, but it’s my life. WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?”
As he slams down the phone and runs out of the room, your dial tone finally segues into a far-away voice. “Hello?” says your operator. “How can I help you?”
This is the beginning, middle and end of your conversation. She warns that if you answer differently from the written responses submitted on your original unemployment application, there will be legal consequences.
You start stammering, trying to remember. This is your first time at an EDD office. You came because you gave up trying to get through to the 800 number from home and your cell phone. You thought you could discuss a confusing letter you received from EDD in person.
The operator’s voice jolts you.
Yes, you get a small pension. What date did it start? What date did you write down? Do you have your former employer’s zip code with you?
Her voice is terse. You said too much. You must answer with yes or no or the information. One word beyond what she expects means she has to start from the beginning.
Are you a member of a union? Are you a U.S. citizen or national? Are you disabled? What was your former employer’s name? Spell it.
Spell it again.
Spell it again.
She is trying to help you.
Why were you laid off?
What is the name of your last employer? Spell it.
Spell it again.
Do you expect to return to work for this employer?
What is your former employer’s name?
She will let you know when you can ask your question.
Going off-script does not work with at least one out of 10 unemployed Californians with no one to help them face-to-face. Like them, you are hardly surprised when two weeks later, a letter from EDD arrives instructing you to wait on a specific date by your home phone from 9 a.m. till noon for an interview. On the appointed day, you wait, but the phone fails to ring. You send EDD an email from its website, stating that you need another appointment asap.
Three days later, you receive five letters from EDD stating that you failed to answer when an agent called. But the phone number listed as the one EDD called is not yours. EDD has made a determination without speaking with you: You are no longer eligible for unemployment.
If you have a problem with this, you can appeal.
Hilary Abramson is a veteran California journalist who has been laid off twice in the past six years.