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Inheriting a mounting bureaucratic disaster that has floated lifelines to inmates but left newly jobless Californians broke, lawmakers are calling for a reboot of the state’s Employment Development Department.

Pressed to act after a series of criminal investigations and audits revealed inmates and fraudsters took the department for at least $10 billion during the pandemic, a group of Assembly members say sweeping changes are needed to make the troubled department functional once again.

Assemblyman Rudy Salas, said “We want to fix it. EDD needs to be reformed, it needs to more responsive to Californians especially during a time of need.”

The bills call for improvements to the department’s identity verification process, an oversight board to monitor unemployment claims, a task force to further investigate fraud, simplified application processes and direct deposit options for claimants.

Courthouse News reported that the reform package comes one day after the department’s leadership received a lashing from an Assembly committee.

During a marathon oversight hearing, flummoxed and angry lawmakers on both sides of the aisle spent five hours recounting stories of people forced to live in their cars while waiting for unemployment benefits that never came.

One of the proposals, Assembly Bill 110, attempts to prevent benefits from going to inmates by requiring EDD to cross-check all claims against state and local incarceration records. Lawmakers also want to spend $55 million on a task force to aid ongoing fraud investigations as well as a new oversight board to ensure unemployment benefits are being distributed swiftly and accurately.

Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris said many of the EDD’s troubles are systemic and far from new.

“The truth is this department has been failing for years and this pandemic really has brought those failures into sharp focus. It has become a crisis for our state.”

In addition to cracking down on past and future fraud, the lawmakers want to make the system easier to use and more accessible.

As highlighted in the recent state audits, while unemployment skyrocketed last year EDD answered fewer than 1% of phone calls made by confused residents. Unable to get through to the department, residents have instead flooded their local elected officials with requests to help with unemployment applications.

Assembly Bill 402 would give people an official avenue for help by creating a sort of consumer advocate arm to sift through application issues. Related proposals would allow claimants to receive benefits via direct deposit, require EDD to offer more options for non-English speakers and a streamlined application process.

San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez said her direct deposit bill is a common-sense proposal born from an incident last summer when Bank of America froze benefit cards amid the spike in fraud. She noted California is just one of three states that doesn’t let people get benefits via direct deposit and that her bill would “cut out the middleman” in reference to the state’s contract with Bank of America.