As coronavirus steadily spreads throughout Santa Barbara County, service and retail workers have turned to California’s Employment Development Department (EDD) to file unemployment claims. This surge in applications has resulted in the department experiencing unprecedented strain and immense obstacles for those who have lost their jobs.
Last Tuesday, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that 1.6 million Californians have filed unemployment claims through the EDD. In a tweet, Newsom warned that this number will continue to rise over the coming weeks.
Under normal circumstances, Californians who lose their job are eligible to apply to the Unemployment Insurance (UI) program, which pays weekly benefit amounts ranging from $40 dollars to $450 dollars. A person can only receive these benefits if they meet the EDD’s eligibility requirements, including total or partial unemployment despite physical ability and desire to work. Once a person files a UI claim, they must continue to demonstrate a need for benefits by meeting these requirements every week.
A recently approved $2.3 trillion dollar federal aid package known as the CARES Act, however, is boosting these benefits. It also made self-employed, part-time, and gig workers eligible for benefits. The act is set to add an extra $600 dollars to each the weekly benefits amount, pushing the highest possible weekly benefits amount to $1,050 dollars.
The act will also extend the time during which a person receives benefits. According to the EDD, this will “grant an additional 13 weeks of federally paid unemployment benefits when an unemployed worker runs out of all of the benefits associated with their regular state-administered unemployment chain.”
The unprecedented surge of applications associated with the outbreak of coronavirus has complicated the application process. The EDD closed its job centers and are asking people to apply online. And despite a major update to the website including a step-by-step chart for what to expect when filing a claim and a webpage devoted entirely to coronavirus-related resources, the digital application is difficult to maneuver.
Furthermore, the department’s telephone line, only open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to noon, is jammed with incoming calls regarding the application process.
In Santa Barbara, workers have expressed frustration with these obstacles.
Student-worker Stella Baumstone explained struggling with the online application for over two hours after her employer, Dune Coffee Roasters, encouraged the non-working employees to pursue unemployment. [Full disclosure, the author worked there, too.]
“It took a couple tries because the website kept crashing. Whenever I moved to a new page, I had to refresh and go back because it had deleted everything I had done,” Baumstone said. “It took four tries,” she added.
Baumstone explained that she decided to apply for unemployment benefits to continue supporting herself as she finishes her last year at Santa Barbara City College. “For the time being,” she said, “I want to have a small side income, whether or not I chose to go back to Dune.”
While Baumstone is currently at her home in Humboldt County, she hopes to return to Santa Barbara in late May.
In the meantime, Dune Coffee Roasters co-owner Julia Mayer is keeping Baumstone and other employees updated on the status of the coffee shop’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) application.
The PPP, a component of the CARES Act, will forgive loans if a small business gets employees back onto payroll by the end of June.
“Our thought is that everyone would be returned to payroll, forego unemployment,” Mayer said in a company-wide announcement.
Mayer concluded the announcement on a hopeful note, reminding employees that the company is committed to the health and well-being of its workers. In late March, the coffee shop opened a free vegetable pantry for workers and offered contact information in case any questions or concerns should arise about the PPP and other unemployment-related issues.
“The world is unprecedented, and none of your lives exist outside this crazy global pandemic. It is exhausting and boring and scary, and then there will be better days, rose garden picnics, and nice coffee times together,” Mayer assured.
To apply for unemployment, visit edd.ca.gov/about_edd/coronavirus-2019.htm.
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