'I Have Nothing': Desperation Deepens As Californians Wait For Unemployment Extensions

A man sleeps in front of closed shopfronts earlier this month in what would be a normally busy fashion district in Los Angeles. (Frederic J. Brown / AFP)

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California's unemployment office has processed 5.1 million claims for jobless benefits since the coronavirus pandemic hit. But some who became unemployed before the pandemic have already run out of benefits, and their claims remain in limbo.

Some people have now gone months without benefits or much hope of finding a job. And they're getting increasingly desperate for financial help.

California's unemployment office will begin processing extensions for this group on May 27. But some with exhausted claims may have to wait until June, or even July, before they start receiving payments again.

NO INCOME AND RUNNING OUT OF SAVINGS

"It's not a comfortable way of living, knowing that there's a good chance you could lose everything in just a month or two," said Richard Torres, a Riverside father who exhausted his unemployment benefits more than a month ago.


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After Torres lost his job as a truck dispatcher in October 2019, he applied for unemployment. His $271 in weekly benefits weren't enough to cover his bills, so he tapped into his savings in order to make ends meet.

Then his benefits ran out in mid-April (unemployment recipients typically can't collect benefits for more than 26 weeks in a single year).

Going out to find another job isn't an option, because he has to stay home to care for his 6-year-old son. Riverside County closed its schools in March.

"I'm pretty much a full-time teacher, parent and daycare provider. So it does limit me to going out to look for work," he said.

Torres estimates his savings could last through July if he stretches every dollar. But some expenses have increased due to the stay-at-home orders. He had to upgrade to high-speed internet so that his son could participate in his school's remote learning.

"How much of my savings am I going to have to dip into before all this ends?" Torres asked. "It seems to be stretching out a lot longer than a lot of people thought it would."

Relief may be on the way, though.

STATE TO BEGIN FILING EXTENSIONS MAY 27

Torres and others with exhausted claims are now entitled to 13 more weeks of unemployment benefits under recent federal legislation.

The problem is, those extensions have not yet been processed by California's unemployment office.

A number of states, such as New Jersey, have begun processing the 13-week extensions. But officials with California's Employment Development Department (EDD) said complicated federal guidelines have made it difficult for the state to quickly roll out extensions.

"It's quite complex in the way these things have to be built," said EDD spokesperson Loree Levy. "Every state is having quite a challenge in building this one."

EDD has said it will begin automatically filing extensions on May 27 for those with exhausted claims, as long as they first started receiving benefits on or after June 2, 2019.

The department will contact people in that group online and through the mail about how to certify for extended benefits.

But some may not be contacted until June. Those with claims dating back further than June 2019 will have to wait until July before they can apply for an extension.

'I HAVE NOTHING'

"I know they're inundated with all these applications," said Deborah Jacob in Thousand Oaks, whose benefits ran out in early April. "I don't feel that the state has really worked hard enough."

Jacob was let go from her job in a hospital HR department last September. Her $420 weekly unemployment check covered essentials like her rent and car payment, but not much more. She ended up depleting her savings by the time the pandemic arrived.

Jacob said she's now had to delay her rent payments. Her two adult children have stepped in to support her financially. She doesn't understand why it's taking the state so long to process her extension.

"I just feel slighted," she said. "It's very demeaning that I have to rely on my children to provide food for me right now, because I have nothing."