Due to the statewide shutdown, Jasmine Harris lost her job at an L.A.-based production company at the end of March. It took her almost six months to get unemployment benefits that were worth anything, and she is still waiting for her full pay.
Harris’s story is not unique, though.
A Bloomberg analysis of U.S. unemployment data shows that more than 57 million people have filed for unemployment benefits since March. This has overwhelmed state unemployment systems, and millions of people are still waiting to be paid. Census Bureau data.
Even though the number of people filing for unemployment benefits for the first time has been going down, it’s still over 800,000 a week, which is much more than the previous pre-pandemic weekly record.
Harris has stopped paying her bills, like rent and utilities, and is just getting by with the little money she has. Even though California has protections against shutting off utilities and the federal eviction moratorium lasts until the end of the year, Harris says she knows she will have to pay it all back at some point.
The stress and helplessness can be too much to handle. “I don’t go out because I don’t have anything. “That’s hard on my mind and heart,” says Harris, who is 30. At this point, she says that the benefits she’s gotten won’t even cover her late rent, let alone her other bills. Still, she says that calling the California Employment Development Department (EDD) for months hasn’t helped much.
Why haven’t my unemployment benefits come yet?
People like Harris are trying to get help from politicians, lawyers, and even social media because they don’t see any help coming. Harris is a member of the Unofficial California Unemployment Help Facebook group, which was started in March and has more than 56,000 members.
When asked by email what was causing the delays, the California EDD said “unprecedented” demand for unemployment benefits. The EDD says that it has handled more than 11.9 million claims for unemployment insurance and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.
Many states have unemployment systems that are badly out of date or didn’t have enough people to handle all of the applications. Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the independent, progressive think tank The Century Foundation, says that the states are catching up, but if there is something wrong with your application, you could get lost in the mix.
Stettner, who has been an advocate for unemployment insurance policies for over 20 years, says that if your application gets flagged and your state’s unemployment agency doesn’t have the resources to help you, you could be stuck.
Mikaelah Pagan did the same thing when she joined the same Facebook group as Harris. She says she went to the EDD the day she lost her job in food service and filed for unemployment. It took four months for her to get benefits.
Pagan, who is 23 years old, says she was finally paid. But she couldn’t get her benefits because her name, which she says was written correctly on her application, wasn’t on the EDD debit card she got in the mail. She says that someone else’s name, date of birth, and gender were put on her account, even though her Social Security number and address were still correct. Her case was put on hold while an investigation was done to make sure she was who she said she was.
How can you make sure you get what you deserve?
Part of the reason there has been so many new unemployment claims recently is that there are a lot of people who qualify this year who wouldn’t have before.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) let many people who didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits before getting them. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which was set up by the CARES Act, may be able to give payments to independent contractors, freelancers, gig workers, and people who work for themselves. Since these workers don’t pay state unemployment insurance taxes and don’t work for companies that contribute to the unemployment system, they usually can’t get unemployment benefits.
But there are different ways to apply for PUA benefits. Daniel Kalish, managing partner at the national employment law firm HKM Employment Attorneys, says that each state has its own rules and procedures for who can get benefits. Kalish says that the stimulus package had language that said states should be more flexible about who gets extra benefits, but it didn’t say how.
Because there is so much confusion right now about who qualifies, Kalish’s advice is simple: if your take-home pay has been cut in any way, you should apply for unemployment benefits, even if you aren’t sure if you qualify. As long as you are honest on your application, applying will not hurt you in any way. He says that they can only say “no.”
Applying for unemployment insurance is just the first step in what could be a long journey. Make sure you’ve filed everything correctly to avoid going backward for no reason. But delays and other problems can still happen.
Even though there’s no surefire way to speed up your application for unemployment insurance, there are things you can do to help it move along. Based on what Pagan and Harris did, you might have to be very persistent in order to get the benefits you are due.
Join a Facebook group for your state about unemployment.
Stettner says to get in touch with people who have already gotten unemployment benefits and know how the process works.
Erica Chan started the group Harris and Pagan went to because she wanted to help people find their way through California’s unemployment system. Chan, a filmmaker who lives in Los Angeles, says she knows what it’s like to apply for unemployment benefits. She thought that a Facebook group might help connect people with similar experiences with those who need help. The group has become a place to find answers to common questions, such as how to verify your identity and how to get in touch with the EDD.
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