1.4 Million Californians Who Lost Unemployment Benefits Last Month Are Now Scrambling To Get Them Back

A woman looks over paperwork from the Employment Development Department of California. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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A few weeks ago, Miracle Mile resident Olivia Frescura woke up to find an ominous message in her inbox.

The message from California's Employment Development Department (EDD) said her unemployment benefits had been frozen due to possible "fraudulent activity."

Frescura, who lost her job managing social media accounts for local bars after the pandemic forced them to close, first saw the message on New Year's Day.

"That was probably worse than a hangover," she said. "It was honestly shocking."

1.4 MILLION CALIFORNIANS TEMPORARILY CUT OFF

The state's unemployment system sent similar messages to 1.4 million people over the holidays, suspending payments to a large portion of jobless Californians shortly after a new federal COVID relief bill promised to put more money in their hands.

Now, those with suspended accounts are scrambling to comply with the department's new fraud prevention guidelines in order to get their payments flowing again.

The department is rolling out a new layer of identity verification for many unemployment recipients, contacting them in batches. Users describe the process as opaque — one that has left many in the dark during a period of great financial hardship.

EDD began sending out links to ID.me, an online identity verification website, on Jan. 6. However, Frescura didn't receive any instructions until Jan. 12. She quickly completed the required steps, which involved submitting her Social Security number, photos of her state ID card and a scan of her face.

Frescura said it's unclear when her benefits might resume. She's begun selling some of her clothes online to earn extra income.

"I'm pretty screwed right now, after my savings," she said. "Realistically, if this keeps going, I have four months."

MANY STILL WAITING FOR INSTRUCTIONS

Some Californians say they've already started receiving benefits again within days of completing the new identity verification steps. Others have not received any instructions yet. EDD officials say they'll be contacting people through Jan. 14.

Lindsay Green, an out-of-work travel agent in Santa Monica, had not been contacted as of today. Prolonged unemployment has depleted her savings, and she has now gone a month without unemployment benefits.

"I've contacted my representatives, and I was basically told, Well, there are food banks, hang in there," Green said. "It leaves me disappointed and not having any faith in this system."

Some recipients have received messages from EDD instructing them to reopen their claim. Los Feliz resident Gabriel Yassky — a laid-off hotel restaurant server — was confused by that message because he was still waiting on instructions to clear the fraud-related block on his account.

"I hope they resolve this quickly," he said. "I know that if I have to try to contact them and resolve this on my own, I'm going to be pulling my hair out."

TIMELINE, NEXT STEPS UNCLEAR

EDD officials did not respond to LAist's questions on the latest round of suspensions.

In a previous emailed statement, department staffers wrote that unemployment recipients are currently "being notified about what information will be needed from them to verify identity or eligibility in order for payments to resume. If no official response is received, claims will be cancelled."

The department has provided links with instructions for navigating ID.me, including how to set up a video call if necessary.

The department has not given a timeline for when recipients can expect to have their benefits reinstated, or any firm deadline for users to complete the verification process before having their claims cancelled.

California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez has said, based on her communication with EDD officials, that recipients could have to wait up to 30 days for benefits to resume.

Meanwhile, the department says it has "expedited" efforts to deliver the new $300-per-week federal supplement to state unemployment benefits outlined in the latest COVID relief bill. However, hurdles in the new identity verification process could end up delaying those federal benefits for many Californians.