Over the weekend, Employment Development Department Director Sharon Hilliard resigned, opening up the likelihood of more extreme changes at the EDD next year.
The EDD has been through a tumultuous year and has put the usually low-key organization in the national and even international spotlight several times since March.
In February, Hilliard became Director of the EDD, having been with the EDD since 1983, and Deputy Director since 2013.
The next month, COVID-19 swept through the U.S. and California, with state’s governors closing many businesses in the span of a few days, causing a sudden rise of mass unemployment.
Within 3 weeks, over 2 million new unemployment claims had been filed in California, overburdening the EDD and forcing them to rush through claims and hire additional help. However, as the number of new claims rose, the EDD fell behind on approving claims. By the summer, investigations found that many claims were months behind and that outdated methods, programs, and equipment were still being used to manage the influx.
This induced GOP lawmakers in Sacramento, led by Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) to call for an audit of the entire Department in July. However, only days before the audit was to take place, Democratic legislators cancelled the meeting, with Governor Gavin Newsom instead forming a “strike team” to evaluate what the problems were in the EDD.
Meanwhile, fraud cases began to significantly rise in the next few months, including 87 arrests in Beverly Hills for using fraudulent EDD. By the time the strike team released its finding in September, the EDD still had open cases dating back to March, with an even larger amount of cases the agency still hadn’t gone through. The strike team announced that there were problems in the numerous outdated and mail-oriented systems the EDD used. This forced the EDD to stop all incoming cases for two weeks earlier this month in order to update their system, creating an even larger backlog while also announcing that all open claims would not be resolved until 2021.
Despite the changes, fraud cases continued to climb, forcing banks including Bank of America to freeze 350,000 Californian accounts as they were investigated.
When Hilliard left on Friday, she left behind an agency still sifting through a giant backlog that had only been partially improved by new upgrades that had actually hurt tens of thousands of people for several weeks. Hundreds of thousands of Californians have also been unable to receive benefits because of her policy decisions, making many miss rent payments, run out of money, and be hurt more than they would have under a normal claim response.
Fraud cases are also still rampant, partially due to policies including not having EDD employees look more thoroughly into claims.
Positive and negative reaction to Hilliard’s resignation
“The EDD could have done so much better,” “Mary,” an EDD employee, told the Globe. “All the changes they are making now are things that we, as employees, have been telling them for years, but they refused to implement. In February, we thought Hilliard would make these changes, before COVID-19, but she didn’t, and you’ve seen what happened.
“It would have still been a mess, but we would have been better off. It took a disaster like COVID-19 to change things up, and that was only after the Governor had a special team come see how things were done.”
“There’s a lot of people at fault here, but by far the person with the lion’s share is Hilliard. And now she’s walking away before all the remaining claims have been processed.”
Hilliard will remain Director until December 31st. In the meantime, she has released statements on her departure, even noting that it is now on the “path to success”.
“This past year I have been committed to seeing the EDD through the most challenging times in the Department’s history, but I believe I can now retire knowing that the EDD is on a great path to success,” Hilliard said in a memo announcing her retirement. “Although this year has come with many challenges, we have accomplished more than we ever thought possible providing additional enhancements to our customers and staff. I am grateful to all of you who made personal, tireless sacrifices to make it possible.”
“It has been my privilege to be part of the Employment Development Department team since the day I walked into the EDD building over 37 years ago. At that time I was 19 years old and looking back I could not have imagined how fortunate it would be to work with so many caring, strong, and professional people determined to provide the best services possible to the citizens of California. It is with a heavy heart that I announce my retirement as of December 31, 2020.”
Other Californian leaders also remarked positively about her brief tenure.
“I am grateful for Sharon’s service and willingness to step into the role of director just before the pandemic. She has helped pave the path for EDD to reset its culture and modernize the system at this critical time,” said California Labor and Workforce Development Agency Secretary Julie A. Su in a statement on Saturday. “This has been a challenging time for the people of California and Sharon and her team have put in the work during this time of unprecedented demand.”
However, many have remained critical of Hilliard’s tenure.
“If she was so successful, then why did she quit 10 months in,” questioned “Henry,” an EDD employee, in an interview with the Globe. “She didn’t pave the wave or do anything. She was forced to change all the systems here and didn’t do anything for the employees. In the thick of it, back in March and April and May, we were running ragged there because of how much time we spent fielding calls from people about their unemployment. She did nothing to help us out, or make it easier for those who needed it, until she was essentially forced to.”
“It doesn’t make you feel great.”
With fraud cases still being sorted out and unemployment claims still being processed until next year, Hilliard leaves a large hole at the EDD, whose future depends on new leadership from the third person to have held the position there within a year.
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