More Than 2 Million Californians Are Out Of Work, But Some Can't Yet File For Unemployment

Chairs stacked on tables in the closed dining areas of Grand Central Market. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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More than 2 million Californians have lost their jobs in the wake of coronavirus-related business closures, according to new data on unemployment claims released Thursday by the Department of Labor.

An unprecedented number of Californians are now filing for jobless benefits. Recent federal legislation opened up unemployment insurance to the self-employed, but many frustrated freelancers are still waiting to even be able to file.

"It's a brand new program. States don't have this ready to go," said Loree Levy, spokesperson for California's Economic Development Department, which handles unemployment claims.

'MY WORK WAS CUT OFF ALL AT ONCE'

In normal times, gig workers, freelancers, and other self-employed people would not be eligible for jobless benefits, because they typically don't pay into the state's unemployment insurance system like employees who file their taxes with a W-2 form.


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The federal coronavirus aid package changed that.

But California officials say they're still trying to figure out how to process these new claims.

According to a new section of EDD's website posted Thursday, "The EDD is sorting through details from the U.S Department of Labor as to how they want this complex program to work in issuing payments that the federal government will be funding."

EDD spokesperson Levy said, "We've got people working around the clock, including on Easter, trying to get as many things as possible out there."

Many self-employed workers would like to see more communication from EDD about when they can expect to see those changes.

One of them is David Allen Baker, a self-employed musician whose main gig has been performing at hotels in Laguna Beach. With the coronavirus decimating the hospitality industry, those hotels are now empty.

"Essentially my work was cut off all at once," Baker said.

He's now been out of work for close to four weeks. He knows it'll take time to get new filing procedures up and running, but he'd like to see more frequent updates on what's going on behind the scenes.

"I trust that EDD is feverishly working to update its website," Baker said. But, he thinks, "They have not communicated well. They just keep the same stock messages up on their site — day in, day out. We just have to trust that they'll get there eventually."

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS FOR FREELANCERS

EDD officials say the department is doing its best under an avalanche of new unemployment claims.

In the week ending April 4, California received 925,450 new claims, on top of more than a million the week before. For perspective, the previous record for claims filed in a single week came in January 2010, when 115,462 Californians applied for unemployment amid the Great Recession.

About 850 staffers have been redirected to processing the deluge of unemployment claims, EDD officials say. Some have been pulled from other departments, and others have been temporarily brought out of retirement to help meet demand.

But dealing with new claims from the self-employed is a challenge for a department mainly geared toward processing claims from employees.

EDD has encouraged some workers to apply through the existing online process if they feel they've been misclassified as an independent contractor by their employer. Rideshare Drivers United, a Los Angeles labor advocacy group for Uber and Lyft drivers, has distributed an unemployment filing guide for workers in the gig economy.

But many independent contractors, like Caroline Creaghead, say they're not misclassified.

"The way that it's structured right now — where it looks like, 'Hey, we'll come after your employer who misclassified you' — is not a route that I wanted to take," said Creaghead, a freelance producer of comedy videos who moonlights as a tax preparer for creative professionals.

Due to social distancing restrictions, video productions can't move forward. And with tax deadlines extended, Creaghead has also lost work helping people file their returns.

There are a lot of unanswered questions for self-employed workers right now, she says, such as how EDD will determine benefits for those with volatile sources of income.

"How is it going to be calculated? A lot of freelancers have up-and-down income depending on the year and depending on the gig," she said. "Those are questions that I don't know the answer to, and I'm not finding any answers to."

EDD officials say they don't yet have a timeline for when the new filing system for self-employed workers will be online. For now, they're encouraging workers to review their eligibility for the program — and keep checking the website for updates.