New EDD payments causing problem for users

A new debit card payment system for those on unemployment and disability is difficult to use for many recipients.
February 9, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
A new debit card payment system for those on unemployment and disability is difficult to use for many recipients.

Billy Jene Carter is doing his laundry while he still can, making her phone calls, and catching up on TV. He knows his water, phone and cable are about to be shut off.

"Due to this debacle by the state of California's Disability Department, I have absolutely no income coming in," he said.

Carter is on state disability, but the state is phasing out payments by check. Instead, funds are loaded onto these "debit cards" -- issued by Bank of America, which for Carter was a major problem. Three weeks after it was due, he still hadn't received her card, so no access to her money.

"It's humiliating and frightening not to be able to pay my house note," Carter said.

He isn't the only one. Jeffrey Webster also received his card late, and once it did arrive, he had to figure out how to get the money out.

"When we went to pull a cash advance out of the ATM, the first thing the ATM brought up was the fact there will be a $3 charge for this," he said.

Not only that, his ATM would only allow a withdrawal up to $500. So, some of the money remained on the card since ATMs dispense $20 bills only so he wondered how to get those leftover dollars.

"You can't pull small change out of ATMs so how do you get your money?" Webster said.

7 On Your Side has received dozens of complaints from disability recipients saying they haven't received their cards and when they do, they worried about fees.

"We would anticipate there is always going to be some anxiety in going to a new system," Loree Levy from the State Employment Development Department said.

Levy feels once recipients get their debit cards, things should run smoothly. Funds are automatically loaded each pay period.

"They have that immediate access to their money much faster than waiting for a check in the mail," she said.

Come June, workers receiving unemployment also will get debit cards instead of checks. The EDD expects to save $4 million per year in check printing and mailing costs. In all, about $22 billion of benefits will be funneled through Bank of America and into the hands of the unemployed and disabled.

For some, it means dealing with a bank not of their choosing.

"My disability payment is being held by Bank of America," Carter said.

Bank of America isn't charging the state a penny for the debit card service. Instead, the bank makes its money off the so-called "swipe fees" paid by merchants when customers use debit cards. The bank said any delays in receiving cards should be minimal, and with careful use, you can avoid fees.

"This is actually a pretty good model for debit card," Joe Ridout of Consumer Action said.

Ridout feels the debit cards are a good deal especially for those who were using expensive check cashing services in the past. The cards offer two free ATM withdrawals per pay period and unlimited ATM use at Bank of America. There are no overdraft fees -- transactions are rejected if there are insufficient funds.

But there are drawbacks -- some companies charge fees to use debit cards at a point of sale and if you buy gas with the card, the gas station may put a hold on your remaining funds. As for leftover dollars, you can cash in the entire card inside a bank that accepts Visa.

A good strategy is to set up a direct deposit of the benefits into your own bank account, which is exactly what Webster did.

"The fact I finally got the direct deposit square away is a plus for me," he said.

As for Carter, three weeks later he finally got a debit card, but was still worried how he was going to extract the funds.

"It's nothing but a big hassle," he said.


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