Filing for unemployment? Here’s how California is scrambling to respond

Jul 30, 2020 | Cal Matters

Missing checks. Marathon waits on hold. Mysterious financial penalties docked from payments that promise a lifeline amid extreme uncertainty. Welcome to the world of California unemployment benefits in the age of coronavirus.

With the state’s jobless rate hovering around 15%, more than 7.6 million people have applied for the nearly $55 billion in unemployment benefits paid out since pandemic shutdowns began in mid-March. The filing frenzy is extreme — much higher than the peak of the Great Recession — but unemployment was a system forged by economic disaster. California’s first version of the program was created after the Great Depression, in 1935, and has been reinvented several times to create the complex web of programs run today by the Employment Development Department, or EDD.

Even in calmer times, the agency is one of the state’s biggest. It’s also heavily reliant on federal funding, which became especially clear after Congress approved a temporary $600-a-week supplement to normal unemployment benefits in March. Now, that additional money and several other emergency changes are in political limbo.

Whether you’re trying to navigate the unemployment maze or curious about the long-term impacts of the unprecedented surge in jobless claims, this explainer will walk you through California’s response — good, bad and ugly — to unemployment in the coronavirus recession.

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If you’ve lost your job, seen freelance work dry up or had your hours reduced, it might be time to fall back on state support that has been expanded during the pandemic. Applying for benefits in California means searching through records, proving your need and often, a lot of waiting. 

California requires that applicants be unemployed through no fault of their own, as well as physically able and ready to work. Undocumented immigrants cannot apply under federal rules, but some state lawmakers want to change that

Applicants also have to meet a prior earnings threshold, which looks at the last 15 months of income. You must have earned at least $1,300 over a quarter-year (ex. Oct.-Dec.), or at least $900 in a quarter-year and a fourth as much again in the surrounding months.

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California unemployment benefits are not one-size-fits-all, whether it’s standard Unemployment Insurance or the coronavirus-era Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. Applicants must detail prior earnings and, when certifying for benefits every two weeks, report any current earnings. The state looks at both when it decides how much to pay in benefits. 

In California, normal unemployment payments range from $40-$450 a week. An online EDD calculator estimates how much those payments will total. 

Regular benefits tend to replace around 45% of prior weekly earnings. That can leave families stretched thin by unemployment, particularly in California’s high-cost cities. For 16 weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government bumped benefits up by $600, a sizable addition.

From stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment to tax extensions and relaxed rules, the government — state and federal — is pulling strings everywhere to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. 

  • Unemployment Insurance eligibility has been expanded, and may include those who have to miss work to care for children. While benefits are typically capped at 26 weeks in a year, two new extensions allow for 13 and then 20 additional weeks.
  • Pandemic Unemployment Assistance is a new federal program that provides unemployment benefits ranging from $167-$450 to those ineligible for typical unemployment insurance, like freelancers, independent contractors, gig workers and people with limited work histories. COVID-19-related job impacts qualify workers for this program.
  • The extra $600 a week, also made available under the federal CARES Act, was automatically added to each week of benefits between March 29 and July 25. Now it’s up to politicians in D.C. and Sacramento to decide if it will be extended.

The reason for the drastic measures is clear. Millions of Californians have been hit hard by the pandemic, particularly workers who are young, female or non-white. One survey showed a third of state residents don’t know how they’ll pay next month’s rent. Another researcher estimated that the rate of household food insecurity has doubled.

This summer, the unemployment horror stories started to boil over. As out-of-work Californians slogged through “150 redials” to the unemployment office or long waits for checks docked for previously unknown penalties, the Mercury News reported that just 3.1 million of the more than 5 million California workers who applied for benefits from March-May had received their first checks by early July.

All over the state, public officials demanded answers and an audit of the EDD after delays that in some cases stretched for months.  Reports of technical glitches and unexplained delays still abound in newly formed Facebook support groups and news articles, but officials say that common reasons for hold-ups include identity verification, missing information on wages and application errors like incomplete work histories.

There’s also no denying how drastically the workload has increased. The state processed eight times as many applications during the worst week so far of the coronavirus recession — 1,058,325 in the third week of March — than the worst week after the financial crisis, according to a CalMatters analysis

The first big financial cliff for Californians receiving (or still waiting to receive) unemployment benefits is July 31, when the federal $600-per-week unemployment supplement is set to expire. A battle is underway on Capitol Hill over extending the emergency funds, with Republicans favoring a lower $200-a-week payment to encourage Americans to go back to work faster. If the funds do expire, state lawmakers have proposed “borrowing” from the feds through a loophole to keep paying the extra $600 per week with California unemployment benefits.

Whether additional safety net funds will be made available is a big question for working class residents, in particular renters staring down the end of short-term eviction protections. Working parents weighing whether to quit their jobs or reduce hours to supervise children starting school remotely are another large segment of the workforce at risk of falling through holes in the pandemic safety net.

How much the state will ultimately pay out in unemployment benefits — and who will be on the hook in the future to settle the tab — is a massive question for California’s financial future. Already, unemployment spending during the pandemic has eclipsed the state’s total annual budgets for higher education, transportation and prisons combined, and it far exceeds yearly spending on things like affordable housing. Expect a contentious battle in the coming months about raising more state revenue, either through more borrowing or new taxes.

Not everyone receiving unemployment benefits has necessarily lost their job for good. Just how many waiters, bartenders and other furloughed or temporarily reduced personnel get back to work in the coming months will be crucial for a recovery that economists already expect to last into 2023. 

So far, California has lagged other states in lowering its unemployment rate. June’s already jarring 14.9% jobless rate could keep climbing this summer after another wave of business closures in dozens of counties as the state continues to break grim records for virus deaths and infections. It’s a drastic shift from the state’s 3.9% unemployment in February, just before the shutdowns began.

While sectors including the tech industry have so far avoided the depth of job cuts in fields like tourism and hospitality, an uneven recovery could further entrench the inequality that has increasingly come to define both good and bad times in California.

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