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Calif orders agency to improve customer service

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- The Brown administration has ordered a state agency to beef up its customer service after computer problems delayed the distribution of unemployment checks.

A top aide to Gov. Jerry Brown told the troubled Employment Development Department to hire new workers and pay overtime to employees to answer calls and process claims, the Los Angeles Times (http://lat.ms/1f4o5Kw ) reported in Saturday's editions.

People out of work had a hard time reaching agents for help after a software upgrade stalled the distribution of unemployment benefits last year. Many got a recorded message that directed them to the agency's website.

A Times investigation found that as many as 90 percent of callers seeking information about missed payments or unprocessed claims could not get through to a human being.

David Lanier, secretary of labor and workforce development, said there were “unacceptable levels of payment delays and unanswered phone calls.”

The Employment Development Department handles the largest unemployment-insurance program in the nation, doling out $6.6 billion to about 1 million unemployed Californians last year. A software upgrade last September was expected to ease the agency's ability to verify who was eligible to receive benefits, but it instead resulted in delayed payments to about 150,000 residents.

In addition to hiring hundreds of new workers and paying overtime, the department plans to invest in new technology that allows people to get a call back, similar to what airlines and banks already have.

“It's clear that to improve service we must retain skilled staff and hire additional workers,” Lanier said. “The administration is committed to providing the funding necessary to improve service levels.”

Advocates praised the move, calling it a good first step.

Maurice Emsellem, program director of the National Employment Law Project, said the bulked-up staffing would go “a long way toward improving morale and basic customer service, which has been lacking.”

Jobless workers were more skeptical.

Margaret Black, a former paralegal from Santa Monica, said she spent months trying to reach a customer representative at the department after her weekly unemployment check was interrupted last year.

“It's been frustration,” Black said. “Human contact is all that anybody wants.”

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Information from: Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com

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