SACRAMENTO — California spent at least $4.6 million during 2009 to play a message that told thousands of jobless Californians like Michael Meloy the obvious.
Nobody at the state's Employment Development Department was available to take their calls as they struggled to file or untangle unemployment insurance claims and the jobless rate hit 12 percent.
When callers like Meloy did get through after days and hundreds and hundreds of tries, EDD paid millions of dollars more to put them on hold for long periods, only to cut them off without service.
Now, the question is this: Are taxpayers getting their money's worth, even after a deal last spring aimed at cutting the soaring cost of EDD's recorded message service?
Meloy, a 50-year-old university educator, thinks not. He became jobless in mid-December. He applied for unemployment insurance using EDD's Web tool on Dec. 19.
There were snafus with his application. After dialing the toll-free lines for days, Meloy said he reached an EDD clerk with no computer.
The clerk's advice? Start all over.
Almost six weeks later, Meloy has yet to receive a check.
"There's many of us who really believe in these institutions that we've paid for our entire careers," Meloy said. "We expected them to be there as a social safety net if and when we ever needed them."
EDD pays phone giant Verizon by the minute for toll-free lines. It also pays Verizon whenever EDD operators can't pick up a call from someone seeking to file a claim, ask about eligibility issues or inquire about extensions.
Unemployment operators couldn't handle more than two-thirds of the 276.6 million calls attempted on the toll-free lines in 2009, according to network call records obtained by The Bee.
Only 75 million calls – about 27 percent – to the toll-free lines were completed, the records show. The remaining calls were routed to a custom recorded message announcement from EDD.
That message advises callers that the department's phone lines are getting more calls than they can handle. It urges people to file unemployment claims on EDD's Web site.
How much the state pays to deliver that message depends on two factors: the number of times the message plays each month and how many times people feverishly redial.
Most callers never listen to the message after the first call, yet EDD is billed for each time they call.
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