Updated April 28, 4:51 p.m., to add information about how independent contractors and self-employed people can apply for benefits.
Retail shops, restaurants and many other businesses remain shuttered across California more than a month after the state issued a stay-at-home order to try and slow the coronavirus outbreak. In that time, millions of workers have lost income and turned to the state’s Employment Development Department, or EDD, for financial assistance.
As of the last week in April, 3.3 million Californians had filed for unemployment since businesses were forced to shut down. In March, the state’s jobless rate rose to 5.3 percent, up 1.4 percent from February, marking a sudden end to the state’s record 10-year streak of job expansion. For some, the pandemic means searching for unemployment benefits for the first time or waiting for hours, days or weeks on busy call lines for information.
Many have asked CapRadio questions about what benefits are available, whether they would qualify for them and how long it takes to receive them. To help, here are answers to some of the most common unemployment questions. We will update this article with more answers to questions in the weeks ahead.
What Benefits Are Available?
There are several options depending on your employment situation.
If, through no fault of your own, you’ve had your hours reduced or been laid off from a job where your employer contributed to the state’s unemployment insurance program, you can file an Unemployment Insurance claim.
That program is designed to partially replace your income, typically for a maximum of 26 weeks, though the state is working to extend that by an additional 13 weeks.
The weekly benefit ranges from $40 to $450 depending on your income.
Recipients will get an additional $600 per week in unemployment assistance as a result of the federal CARES Act. That was passed by Congress and signed by President Trump in late March in response to the economic damage caused by the coronavirus.
The extra money is available for affected workers from March 29 through July 31.
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I Am Not Sure Whether I Qualify For Benefits. What Should I Do?
Navigating the state’s employment system is complex and cumbersome. Just figuring out whether you qualify for benefits can be challenging.
Given the rapid pace of executive orders by Gov. Gavin Newsom and new legislation from Congress, many non-traditional workers who have lost income due to COVID-19 are now eligible for relief benefits.
“What I’m telling people is everyone should apply for unemployment,” said Jennifer Shaw, president of the Shaw Law Group in Sacramento and an employment law expert. “Because the bottom line is the rules are changing every single day. The worst thing that happens is they decline you and you appeal. … Don’t assume you are not covered.”
In its “Guide to applying for unemployment benefits in California,” EDD also encourages people to apply whether they are sure they qualify or not.
“These benefits are available for all California residents,” the website reads. “If you are still unsure of your eligibility or what to apply for, apply anyway, and as soon as you are out of work. Complete the application as best you can, and we will follow up with you as soon as possible.”
Do Furloughed Workers Qualify For Unemployment?
Some workers have been furloughed, meaning they still have a job but they’re going unpaid while their employer is closed due to COVID-19. EDD encourages them to file an unemployment insurance claim.
“Workers who are temporarily unemployed due to COVID-19 and expected to return to work with their employer within a few weeks are not required to actively seek work each week,” the agency said on a Frequently Asked Questions page. “However, they must remain able, available, and ready to work during their unemployment for each week of benefits claimed and meet all other eligibility criteria.”
What Are The Options For The Self-Employed And Independent Contractors?
Typically, California’s business owners and self-employed workers — such as independent contractors who work in the gig economy — are shut out of unemployment benefits. But under the CARES Act, they are eligible for help through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, or PUA. It provides a minimum “base benefit” of $167 per week for people in this non-traditional part of the workforce, including part-time workers, affected by the virus.
People can receive that minimum amount even if the state can’t immediately assess how much they should be paid, California Labor Secretary Julie Su told CapRadio last week. The PUA program covers people unemployed or partially unemployed due to COVID-19. They are retroactive from January 27 through December 31 depending on the date of actual impact.
“This is a really tough time for people. We know it’s a time of great anxiety, of frustration, of fear. So, people may not have the ability to state how much they made,” Su said.
On top of their base benefit, affected workers will receive $600 per week in unemployment assistance through the end of July, just like the other more traditional set of workers.
How Soon Will Self-Employed Workers And Independent Contractors Be Able To Apply?
California finally launched the PUA program on April 28, with some applicants reporting a smooth process and others saying the state’s website crashed as they tried to apply.
The long wait for the program to start had been one of the biggest frustrations for self-employed Californians and independent contractors.
State officials have pledged that people will be able to receive their benefits within one to two days of applying.
Statewide, there are an estimated 2 million self-employed people and 3.4 million who work part-time, according to figures compiled by the office of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Millions more work in the gig economy as delivery and rideshare drivers, freelance writers and musicians.
How Long Does It Take To Receive Assistance?
Before the crisis, EDD took about three weeks to process unemployment claims. The agency has said the surge in demand will likely slow the delivery of benefits. The agency provides applicants with step-by-step instructions online for how to certify and ultimately receive their benefits.
What’s Being Done To Speed Up Claims?
Many Californians have complained about long delays just getting through to EDD as the number of filings has surged.
To address those concerns, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order last week to expand the agency’s call center hours. Starting this week, EDD launched a new call center that now operates seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Previously, EDD’s phone lines were staffed for only four hours each morning Monday through Friday.
Earlier in April, the state said it has redirected 1,340 employees to boost call center staffing and assist with unemployment claims.
For more information, visit EDD’s website on employment benefits during the COVID-19 crisis.
Can I Apply Again For Unemployment If I Never Heard Back?
Some benefits seekers have said they applied but never heard back. In this case, applicants should try again.
“The system, as hard as they are trying, is overwhelmed,” Shaw, the employment law expert, said on CapRadio’s Insight with Beth Ruyak on April 23.
“Part of what we are hearing from the folks inside at the EDD is if you’ve applied, you haven’t heard anything, you haven’t received confirmation of your application, it’s okay to apply again," Shaw said. "I know we don’t want to overwhelm the system. But there have been a number of outages for the EDD’s computer programs, so what happens is you may have submitted an application during one of those periods and then the application wasn’t actually processed.”
“You’re not going to get anybody on the phone at this point, but you can resubmit the application,” Shaw added.
There’s one scenario, however, where applicants should not reapply, according to the EDD website: Individuals with active unemployment insurance claims “who are not receiving UI benefits because they are serving penalty weeks should not reapply.”
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