In summary

The latest investigation from CalMatters digs into how five million Californians waited for delayed unemployment benefits while the state was being defrauded of billions of dollars by scammers from around the world.

A new year-long CalMatters investigation details the EDD’s dire breakdown during the early months of the pandemic, the devastating impact it’s had on people who couldn’t get benefits and how the state is looking to rebuild the troubled system. 

Here’s a look at some of the reporting that revealed these damning details and human stories.

Public records fuel accountability

Hepler and the CalMatters data team requested and analyzed thousands of pages of internal state communications and EDD contracts. This effort also took her to the California State Archives, where she unearthed old black and white photos from when the agency that became the EDD started in the 1930s, after the Great Depression.

Her review found 1950s telegrams when the governor started writing to the feds about unemployment fraud, 1980s state hearings about depression and domestic violence linked to unemployment, and a horrific mass shooting  at an Oxnard EDD office in 1993.

“These things are cyclical, and for everyone’s sake, I hope we find a way to keep history from repeating once again,” Hepler says.

She filed a half-dozen state and federal public records requests seeking many different types of communications between officials, financial records and state contracts. In return she received more than 2,500 pages of records.

Her requests were denied in two notable cases:

  • An EDD request for information about a pre-COVID fraud contract.
  • A federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau request for more information about Bank of America’s EDD debit card program.

And some state records are still coming in, so stay tuned for future stories.

“I was really struck by the deja vu element — how old a lot of these issues were, but how they were magnified in a huge way during the pandemic to impact millions more people,” Hepler says.

Community engagement brings the human element

Hepler’s outreach to find people impacted by the EDD failed payments came from many sources.

  • A CalMatters survey launched in 2020 collected responses from 500 people across the state who faced unemployment payment delays, unexpected benefit denials or fraud allegations.
  • Pointed reporting where Hepler asked attorneys, workers and businesses  to recommend other people impacted by the crisis.
  • Social media queries to find people who posted about their unemployment payment challenges on Reddit or Facebook.

“The stories that will stay with me the most are the people who were struggling with intense emotional distress, and in some cases, suicidal thoughts or behavior. This was a breakdown of an essential state service that is going to keep having ripple effects on peoples’ lives for years to come,” Hepler says.

She stayed with many sources as their stories kept evolving through what in some instances became years-long appeal cases. In the meantime, multiple people lost their apartments or couldn’t pay their mortgage anymore and had to move out of the state, or in one case we followed, out of the country, to Tecate just across the Mexico border.

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Sonya builds bridges between the community and CalMatters as director of membership and engagement. Previously she managed engagement, fundraising, marketing, digital storytelling and UX at Voice of OC,...