Some Californians Have Already Run Out Of Unemployment Benefits — And Can't Get Extensions (Yet)

A staffer works to process claims at California's unemployment office, March 30, 2020. (California Employment Development Department)

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California's rollout of a new unemployment program for self-employed workers is off to a rocky start. And Californians who've run out of benefits are still shut out of the system.

The state launched its Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program on Tuesday, giving many independent contractors their first chance to apply for benefits.

But applicants are having a tough time getting through the system because of technical difficulties with the state's website.

"I am deeply aware that many of you tried to access that system — online, in person — and struggled to get in," Governor Gavin Newsom said in his daily press conference on Wednesday.


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He said the state is using a new chatbot feature to answer commonly asked questions. Newsom also said 1,340 staffers have been hired to answer phones at an unemployment call center that is now open 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

"The UI Online system is not down, it has just slowed down and was not readily available at some points over the last several days with historic levels of people coming in at one time," said Employment Development Department (EDD) spokesperson Loree Levy.

"We are working with IT partners and vendors around the clock to increase capacity and balance the load on our UI Online system," she said.

NEED AN EXTENSION? YOU'LL HAVE TO WAIT

For now, those who've run out of benefits can't even get online to apply for extensions available through new federal legislation.

"I'm closed out of the site," said Dana Fares, a laid-off worker in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Last year, Fares lost her job doing social media and marketing for a small California winery. She collected unemployment benefits before starting a new job at a staffing firm this March. But within a month, she was laid off again due to the coronavirus.

"I like to work. It's part of my identity," Fares said. "Not having that purpose is really challenging. Also knowing that I don't have any income is extremely challenging."

Unlike others who've lost work during the pandemic, Fares has not been able to collect unemployment benefits yet. That's because she has already hit the normal annual limit.

Typically, unemployment recipients can only receive benefits for 26 weeks. The federal CARES Act extended that timeframe by an additional 13 weeks. But Californians with exhausted claims are still waiting to receive that extension.

"I'm probably on my last $400," said Derek Abalos, an out-of-work warehouse employee in San Bernardino.

Abalos's benefits ran out on March 15, just as the economy started to feel the effects of the pandemic. Lately, he's been borrowing money from family members. He said there's little hope of finding a job these days.

"The new normal is so weird. It's off. It's not booming the way it used to be," he said. "I need clarity to see what I'm going to do. I don't want to panic."

On Tuesday, California Labor Secretary Julie Su said on Twitter that the state is working on a timeline for rolling out extensions.

The state's unemployment office couldn't offer a firm date for when those extensions will be processed.

"We are working on some further details for those claimants who have exhausted all available benefits," Levy, the EDD spokesperson, said. "We will be sure to provide updates on that in the next day or so."