In summary

California’s unemployment department is making progress on key reforms, but some of the most transformational changes are still years away.

The good news: California’s unemployment department is making progress on key reforms. The bad news: Some of the most transformational changes are likely still years away.

The slow pace of change at the Employment Development Department — which confirmed Monday it has paid at least $20 billion of potentially $31 billion worth of fraudulent claims amid the pandemic even as hundreds of thousands of jobless Californians’ claims were backlogged for weeks at a time — emerged as a source of both frustration and fear for state lawmakers during a Monday oversight hearing.

We must “ensure we’re not sitting up here in 2032 rehashing the same issues,” said Democratic Assemblymember Cottie-Petrie Norris of Laguna Beach, chairperson of one of the committees hosting the hearing. She cited a January report from the state auditor that found EDD was unprepared for the pandemic in part because it failed to address critical operational issues it had known about for more than a decade.

Rita Saenz, whom Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed to lead EDD in January, said the department is “being transformed” and is paying claims “faster and in a more secure way,” though many fixes are not “an overnight type of change.” She added that EDD has made progress on 13 of the 21 recommendations outlined in State Auditor Elaine Howle’s two January reports.

Howle — who announced Monday that she is retiring at the end of the year — seemed skeptical that EDD would have taken action if state legislators hadn’t turned many of her recommendations into law. “A partnership between my office and the Legislature … will compel a department like the EDD — and some of the other departments that we audit — to actually do things,” Howle said, an apparent dig at the Newsom administration. She added that EDD contacted her office late last week because they knew the hearing was happening — though, ironically, the hearing itself was postponed twice by lawmakers.

The hearing’s central question came from Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo, a Los Angeles Democrat and chairperson of another host committee. “What will it take … to turn this Titanic around?” she asked, noting that all reforms are essentially meaningless if EDD doesn’t upgrade its outdated technology.

The answers from Saenz and other EDD staff suggest that it will take a lot of time and money to turn the Titanic around. Here’s what to expect:

  • By the end of November: A fully staffed fraud prevention unit and a director for EDD’s new language access office. (Hiring remains a challenge, especially for the call centers, which have a 30% turnover rate and a 4-month onboarding period for new employees.)
  • By the end of July 2022: Completion of EDD’s deferred workload. (EDD in July began auto-paying some benefits to help clear the claim backlog; now it has to retroactively verify hundreds of thousands of claimants’ eligibility. Some interviews are scheduled 26 weeks out.)
  • By Jan. 1, 2023: EDD must stop including people’s full Social Security numbers on documents sent by mail — which it did 38 million times between March and November 2020, putting many Californians at risk of identity theft, according to the state auditor.
  • “Another couple of years”: A new, fully implemented IT system. (A project to modernize EDD’s tech systems has been ongoing for years; a Newsom-appointed strike team recommended last year that the project start over completely.)
  • “A couple of years more”: A direct deposit option for unemployment benefits. That would help claimants avoid using debit cards, hundreds of thousands of which were frozen due to suspected fraud.

The direct deposit timeline did not please Democratic Assemblymember Rudy Salas of Bakersfield. “It’s a little frustrating because you see … other states that are able to do the direct deposit,” he said. “It begs the question why we couldn’t do that in the state of California, when we’re technologically as advanced as we like to say we are.”

The coronavirus bottom line: As of Sunday, California had 4,606,599 confirmed cases (+0.1% from previous day) and 70,884 deaths (+0.2% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 51,906,771 vaccine doses, and 72.5% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

1. Newsom, lawmakers head to Scotland

Gov. Gavin Newsom presents the breakdown for the $267.8 billion budget revise in a program dubbed ‘California Roars Back’ at the Secretary of State building auditorium in Sacramento on May 14, 2021. The budget focuses large allotments toward education, housing and climate resiliency measures. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters
Newsom during a budget presentation in Sacramento on May 14, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

Is California a global leader when it comes to addressing climate change? That’s the case that Newsom, top members of his administration and 15 state lawmakers will make next week when they travel to Glasgow, Scotland for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, the governor’s office announced Monday. The news came less than a week after the Newsom administration released a draft proposal to block the development of new oil and gas wells near schools, hospitals and homes — and the same day the World Meteorological Organization announced that greenhouse gas concentrations hit a record high last year. The stakes will be high in Glasgow: U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry called the conference “the last best chance the world has to come together in order to do the things we need to do to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis.” 

Speaking of climate change and its link to extreme weather: The bomb cyclone that whipped through Northern California on Sunday headed south on Monday, sparking flood advisories and mudslide warnings throughout Southern California and brief evacuations near the burn scar of the Alisal Fire in Santa Barbara. The northern part of the state, meanwhile, assessed the storm’s records: Santa Rosa on Sunday saw its wettest day in history, while Sacramento set a record for 24-hour rainfall and San Francisco experienced its wettest recorded October day — all during a record drought. Water levels rose in the state’s depleted reservoirs, Lake Tahoe’s water level crept back up above its natural rim, and Sacramento’s newly built 6-million-gallon water vault was filled to the top.

2. State agencies under scrutiny

Technicians conduct COVID-19 tests at the state’s new testing lab on Oct. 30, 2020, in Valencia. Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP/Pool

California “will have the strongest state vaccine verification system in the US,” Newsom proclaimed in July, when he announced that state workers must get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. But three months later, only 66% of the state’s employees have submitted proof of vaccination — and only half of unvaccinated workers were tested for COVID-19 during the first week of October, according to a Los Angeles Times investigation. At Cal Fire, for example, less than a third of employees have provided proof of vaccination — but the agency is testing just 75 of the remaining 6,700 workers. And although the California Department of Human Resources is charged with enforcing the mandate, its workforce has a vaccination rate of only 62%.

  • Dr. Monica Gandhi, a UCSF infectious-disease expert and professor of medicine: “The entire point of Gov. Newsom being the first governor to say state employees should be vaccinated is because these employees are public interfacing, and the vaccine protects them and the public they serve. Then, if the testing component isn’t being universally applied, you are defeating the point.”

Speaking of state agencies, the California Department of Education — which last week was roasted by the state auditor for poor oversight of local school districts’ spending — is back in the hot seat. An EdSource investigation found that it’s taken the department seven months to start sending federal pandemic relief funds to private schools — some of which won’t be able to obtain vendors for needed services until February, a year after the initial round of money was approved.

3. Redistricting goes local

Long Beach residents from different districts participated in a commission meeting held at City Hall to denounce the proposed redistricting maps on Oct. 20, 2021. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters
Long Beach residents participate in a commission meeting at City Hall to denounce proposed redistricting maps on Oct. 20, 2021. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters

In a state as big as California, all politics is local. While a state-level independent commission redraws the maps that will determine the Golden State’s legislative and congressional seats for the next decade, a dozen new local independent commissions are redrawing their own city and county election districts. And, as CalMatters’ Sameea Kamal reports, these new panels are coming up with districts that in some places have never been redrawn, or altered significantly, despite changing populations. And taking redistricting power away from elected officials could mean big changes in representation and city priorities, such as controversial land-use and economic decisions.

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CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: California is seeing a wave of political corruption.

California’s courts need updating: In order to deliver impartial justice to people of all racial and economic backgrounds, we must strengthen our courts with the right mix of innovation and investment, writes Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, a California Supreme Court justice.

Meeting California’s climate goals: An important first step is establishing a procurement standard for fuels such as hydrogen and renewable natural gas, argues Scott Drury, CEO of the Southern California Gas Company.

Other things worth your time

Three California teens developed severe psychiatric symptoms after COVID. Here’s what scientists say about the cases. // San Francisco Chronicle

Investigating deadly COVID-19 outbreaks at Foster Farms. // KQED

Don’t like your kid’s school? Initiative would give California parents power to sue for change. // Sacramento Bee

Armed officers still patrol Southern California schools, despite outcry. // Orange County Register

California community colleges unable to justify placing students in remedial classes, study finds. // EdSource

Stanford joins group offering classes to disadvantaged high school students. // Wall Street Journal

The Stanford sailing coach’s defense in the Varsity Blues case. // New Yorker

Who is the far-right group disrupting Los Gatos council meetings? // Mercury News

Marin, a wealthy California county, could run out of water. // Los Angeles Times

Pismo Beach butterfly groves sees 3,500% increase in monarch count. // San Luis Obispo Tribune

California’s legal weed industry can’t compete with illicit market. // Politico

Here’s how you can walk across San Francisco in a day. // National Geographic

Disneyland ticket prices rise as much as 8%; parking up 20%. // Los Angeles Times

How Patrick Soon-Shiong made his fortune before buying the Los Angeles Times. // New Yorker

See you tomorrow.

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Emily Hoeven wrote the daily WhatMatters newsletter for three years at CalMatters . Her reporting, essays, and opinion columns have been published in San Francisco Weekly, the Deseret News, the San Francisco...