COVID-19 contract boom

Stacy Lira was nearly a year into her unofficial job as an unemployment detective when things went from bad to worse.

The 46-year-old mother of three, who lost her job managing an Inland Empire convenience store last spring, was rushed to the hospital in mid-February. She was struggling to breathe after testing positive for COVID-19. But Lira was adamant that she couldn’t leave home without one thing: She needed her carefully filed unemployment records so she could keep calling from the hospital about the nearly $20,000 she says the state owes her family.

“If you miss one day,” Lira explained, “that could have been the day that it all worked out.”

As the ranks of desperate California workers like Lira swell, the state’s Employment Development Department insists that it’s getting things under control. It has help from an ever-expanding roster of private contractors that are staffing up call centers, modernizing tech systems and rooting out fraud, officials stress on social media and at political hearings in Sacramento — an effort that, all told, has so far cost the state at least $236 million during the pandemic, the agency told CalMatters.

The contracts are part of a nationwide unemployment gold rush, as tech companies and consultants pitch overwhelmed public agencies new solutions for fraud and outdated claims systems. One Bloomberg Law report last summer tallied $173.8 million in pandemic-era unemployment contracts for consulting giants Accenture, Deloitte and EY alone.

But in California, it’s not easy to track who’s getting paid for what, because there is no easily accessible public list of all state unemployment contracts. The state and its contractors stress that both the demand for benefits and volume of fraud are unprecedented. Still, ongoing confusion adds to what state lawmakers have called the Employment Development Department’s “very poor history” of paying outside entities to patch holes in the safety net as workers try to survive in financial limbo.

The $236 million in contracts that the department has signed since last March pay for outside companies to help track jobless claims, verify worker identities, analyze records for potential fraud, assist with customer service and more. CalMatters requested and analyzed detailed contract records for five vendors working on key customer service and anti-fraud projects — Deloitte, Maximus, Thomson Reuters, vendor V3Gate and Salesforce vendor Outreach Solutions as a Service — which total at least $103.8 million and have ballooned in cost over time, but which the state says were crucial in a crisis.

“The volume of work was staggering,” Employment Development Department spokesperson Aubrey Henry said in a statement. Calls from the public jumped 3,400 percent to 48 million in April 2020 as the state scrambled to process more than 20 million claims, he said, up from 3.8 million claims at the peak of the Great Recession.

“Vendors, mass hiring, redirecting workers from within the department, and borrowing workers from other departments, and continued staffing up, were all part of an effort to respond to the historic demand for benefits,” Henry said.

The majority of these new contracts went to consulting giant Deloitte, but several other vendors have also signed major deals in recent months, according to the contracts provided to CalMatters.

At least $69 million went to Deloitte in no-bid emergency contracts for call center and IT services.

Government contracting giant Maximus signed on to provide up to $11.5 million worth of phone staffing services.

The state paid $9.5 million to IT firm V3Gate to obtain identity verification services.

Outreach Solutions As A Service, a Sacramento consultancy, sold the state $9.4 million worth of services and software, mostly from Salesforce.

Thomson Reuters signed $4.2 million in contracts for analytics related to fraud.

The state has yet to disclose a price tag for another recently announced deal with Accenture, which the Employment Development Department said it is still negotiating.

While recent state audits recommend more tech vendors to deal with remaining challenges, some government watchdogs question what the Employment Development Department and agencies like it are getting for their money with the pricey contracts. In recent years, the trend toward outsourcing increasingly large chunks of the social safety net has led to a trail of lawsuits and investigations in other states, including scrutiny of Deloitte and Maximus.

California lawmakers, meanwhile, have called Deloitte’s call centers “a mess” and blamed the company for failing to answer millions of calls from jobless workers, CapRadio has reported.

In one notable exception to the unemployment spending spree, the department has kept making money during the COVID recession on a high-profile contract with Bank of America. Under that deal first detailed by CalMatters, the bank provides prepaid unemployment debit cards to workers — many of whom have reported issues with fraud and frozen accounts — and the state and the bank split millions in revenue from transaction fees charged to merchants when the cards are used to buy something.

Since last fall, however, the Employment Development Department has refused to say how much Bank of America has made on the deal. It’s one example of broader anxiety about a lack of transparency.

“We understand other vendors are involved with EDD, but there is little visibility into all projects and contracts,” a bipartisan group of five dozen state lawmakers wrote to Gov. Gavin Newsom in August. “The public is owed a clear explanation.”

Whether the Employment Development Department and its widening array of contractors get it right this time will have huge consequences for workers and businesses who rely on the state’s job safety net. California’s $21 billion and counting in unemployment debt, with few prospects for major reform, is one factor that could undermine its economic recovery.

But the biggest question for state unemployment programs forged in the Great Depression, strained by the Great Recession and nearly broken by a global pandemic is who they are being built to serve. As taxpayers again pick up the tab to keep the program running, some jobless workers worry that they’re being victimized by panic about fraud while still not getting the money they’re owed.

CalMatters is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization focused on policy.

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