A Step-By-Step Guide To Getting The Most Money Possible From Your Unemployment Benefits In California

Published Sep 22, 2020

Millions of Californians have lost work and filed for unemployment since the pandemic began. It's been scary. The worst-unemployment-since-the-Great-Depression kind of scary.

And, like nearly everything else Angelenos are dealing with, the rules for accessing unemployment benefits keep changing.

New programs are being created (and cut). There are massive payment delays. There's a learning curve. And limited-to-no live contact from representatives. And phones that go unanswered. And the waiting, and the waiting, and the waiting, and the waiting.

The process of acquiring and maintaining unemployment benefits can be its own special hell. The system can be absurdly difficult to navigate. And if something goes wrong, or a step gets overlooked, it's nearly impossible to speak to an actual human person and get it resolved quickly.

So we put together this guide to help people find the steps a little easier, and hopefully minimize some delays in getting paid.

EDD also has an FAQ (or two, or three). And there are some additional answers there. But you can also ask us your questions.

We've answered thousands from readers since the world turned upside down, and an outsized number have been about unemployment.

Nothing about this process is fast or easy, but whether you're filing for the first time, or troubleshooting an existing claim, let us know what you still need answered.

- HOW (AND HOW MUCH) -

Let's start with the endgame.

At the moment, the best case scenario is $450 per week.

But it might be $40.

Possibly you'll get something in between.

There's essentially a 3-part process for acquiring unemployment payments: Registering, Filing, Certifying.

Registering is setting up an account.
Filing is providing personal details and work history.
Certifying is checking-in every two weeks to say you're still unemployed/eligible.

Note: certifying is very important. If you do not do it, they will stop sending you money.

You can manage the benefit process online, over the phone, via mail, and even with a fax machine. But the Employment Development Department recommends online, if possible.

California is also participating in "the Lost Wages Assistance program" which will mean another $300 per week if you're already receiving at least $100 per week in benefits (and certify that it's because of COVID-19).

Payments for this program started processing on September 7, and will backdate to July 26.

If you were already partially or fully unemployed due to COVID-19, you should automatically receive LWA payments, including retroactively. If that's not the case, you'll need to certify and provide time-sensitive information.

- APPLYING FOR THE FIRST TIME -

Go to the Benefit Programs portal on the EDD website.

Register for an account / Log in.

Select "UI Online."

Select "File New Claim"

You'll need to provide the following details:

  1. Name
  2. Address
  3. Phone number
  4. Social Security number
  5. California driver license or ID card
  6. Citizenship status
  7. Your last employer (name, address, phone number)
  8. The last date you worked
  9. The reason you're not working there now
  10. Your gross earnings from the last week you worked
  11. Information about all your employers in the past 18 months (contact details, how long you worked there, gross wages, weekly hours, hourly rate, reason for no longer working there, etc).
  12. And, if you are a former federal employee, ex-military, non-citizen, or have a pension, there are additional forms and details to submit.

- UI OR PUA -

Gesundheit.

The Benefit Programs portal handles claims for both regular state Unemployment Insurance (UI) and the new federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA).

Don't panic if you're not sure which one you qualify for. You don't get to choose.

Applicants are asked the same set of history and earnings questions, plus new questions to determine eligibility.

The department then figures out which program fits your situation, and your paperwork will be processed accordingly.

- THE SELF-EMPLOYED -

The PUA program was created to provide financial relief for self-employed people and others who wouldn't typically qualify for unemployment.

That can include:

Business owners
Self-employed workers
Gig workers
Freenlancers
Independent contractors
People with a limited work history

And others who qualify.

This modification by the Employment Development Department (EDD) is being supported by the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which is a provision of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which is sometimes referred to as the stimulus package and/or the coronavirus relief package. The knee bone's connected to the... something.

PUA is set to run through Dec. 26.

- THE $600 HOLE -

Another provision of the CARES Act, the Pandemic Additional Compensation program, was the mechanism providing an additional $600 per week to all unemployment recipients.

That federal benefit dried up at the end of July, and while Congress considered an extension, no agreement was secured.

President Trump then issued an executive order to extend the benefit (at a lower amount) with states required to fund 25% of the funds.

While the details were being worked out, Californians reverted to receiving weekly benefits based solely on past income or wages:

$167 - $450 per week if your claim is processed as PUA.
$40 - $450 per week if your claim is processed as UI.

But "the Lost Wages Assistance program" is on the way, and it will mean another $300 per week if you:

are already receiving at least $100 per week in benefits
certify that it's because of COVID-19

Payments for this program start processing on September 7, and will backdate to July 26.

If you were already partially or fully unemployed due to COVID-19, you should automatically receive LWA payments, including retroactively. If that's not the case, you'll need to certify and provide time-sensitive information.

- REASONS FOR NOT WORKING -

They can be health reasons or work reasons.

You can file because of:

Termination
Cut hours
Unpaid leave
Furlough
COVID-19 quarantine
COVID-19 symptoms
COVID-19 diagnosis
COVID-19 diagnosis in a member of your household
COVID-19 diagnosis in a member of your household and you are providing care
Having to quit your job as a direct result of COVID-19
Your place of employment being closed as a direct result of COVID-19
Missing/quitting work to be at home with your kids while schools are closed
The job you were about to start isn't available now as a direct result of COVID-19
Not being able to reach your place of employment as a direct result of COVID-19
The pandemic severely limiting your ability to perform your customary work

And others.

- DISABILITY & PAID FAMILY LEAVE -

Or maybe you may want to apply for a different program entirely, like:

State Disability Insurance (more)
Disability Insurance (more | eligibility)
Paid Family Leave (more | eligibility)
Disaster Unemployment Assistance (more | disasters list)

EDD manages these too, but they're different programs with different pay structures and timeframes. However, some of the eligibility criteria seem to overlap.

If you do decide to apply and you don't get approved, you can then pivot to file an unemployment claim.

- CERTIFYING FOR BENEFITS -

Now back to unemployment. And filing a claim isn't the end of it. There are still critical steps to take so that payments aren't delayed or denied.

There are plenty of places for things to go wrong during this process, but mistakes are frequently made during the "certification" when people aren't sure how to answer the questions.

Keep these things in mind:

-- You must be well enough to work to receive UI benefits.
-- Benefits are paid according to how many days you're able to work.
-- Benefits are cut one-seventh for each day you can't work due to illness or injury.
-- You must be unemployed through no fault of your own.
-- You must be able and available for work.
-- You must be willing to accept suitable work.
-- You're typically required to look for work, but that's been waived for the time being.

You might be scheduled for a phone interview if there are questions about your paperwork. And EDD says that within two weeks of filing a claim, you'll be getting some mail:

1. Notice of Unemployment Insurance Claim Filed. This is the overview of the info you provided. You have 10 days from the mailing date to contact EDD if something was processed incorrectly.

2. Notice of Unemployment Insurance Award. This details your weekly benefit amount and the maximum amount of your claim, based on past wages reported by employers. You have 10 days from the mailing date to contact EDD if something was processed incorrectly.

3. Employment Development Department Customer Account Number"EDDCAN" is needed for the online portal, and may be used instead of your Social Security number when (if) speaking with the EDD.

4. Unemployment Insurance Benefits: What You Need to Know. This details the eligibility requirements and reviews the step-by-step process to certifying ongoing benefits.

5. Continued Claim form. Every two weeks you can certify online via the Benefit Programs portal, or call EDD Tele-CertSM at (866) 333-4606, or mail back this form. Note: Tele-Cert is not available for PUA folks.


- HOW LONG DO THE PAYMENTS LAST? -

We really want to give you a simple answer, but it's variable.

For PUA, there are up to 46 weeks of available benefits. Those payments can be backdated to February 2, as applicable, and will be available until December 31, 2020.

For UI, you can typically only collect for 26 weeks, but these are not typical times, so now there's something called the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) which adds another 13 weeks of benefits

And, if you use all your PEUC benefits, you also may qualify for a 20-week FED-ED extension.

If you qualify for either extension it will be applied automatically. PEUC benefits are being handled in phases.

- YOUR CLAIM STATUS -

Consider this a decoder ring for government-speak.

Paid: You met eligibility requirements.
Pending:There may be an issue with your certification responses.
Disqualified:You are not eligible this week.
Excessive Earnings: No benefits because you made more than your weekly benefit amount.
False Statement Penalty Week: No benefits this week as a penalty for giving a false statement (for example: you went back to work but didn't tell the EDD and continued to collect benefits).



- GOOD TO KNOW -

Here is a medley of timelines, exceptions, best practices, and tips.

File your claim the first week you lose your job or have your hours cut.

Weeks begin on Sunday.

The 7-day waiting period that typically accompanies the first certification has been waived until further notice.

Typically, you have to look for work every week to certify. That condition has been waived until further notice.

EDD says "it takes at least three weeks to process a claim for unemployment benefits and issue payment to most eligible workers." If you're getting payments on an EDD Debit Card, tack on a few more days for Bank of America to send it to you in the mail (if you had a card but you lost it, replace it here).

Use the UI Benefit Calculator for an estimate of what you will receive.

You can only file your claim online during certain hours:

Sunday 5 a.m. - 8:30 p.m.
Monday 4 a.m. - 10 p.m.
Tues.-Fri. 2 a.m. - 10 p.m.
Saturday 2 a.m. - 8 p.m.

You can only file your claim by phone during certain hours:

Mon. - Fri, 8 a.m. to noon (except on state holidays).
English (800) 300-5616
Spanish (800) 326-8937
Cantonese (800) 547-3506
Mandarin (866) 303-0706
Vietnamese (800) 547-2058
TTY (800) 815-9387

For troubleshooting, general questions, technical help, registration issues, password resets, EDD Account Number, etc, call (833) 978-2511 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m, seven days a week (except state holidays).

File your UI claim by accessing the paper Unemployment Insurance Application. For faster and secure processing, fax the completed application to the number listed on the form. If you mail your application, use the address on the form and allow additional time for processing.

Contact your local America's Job Center of California if you need help with mailing or faxing a paper application.

Unemployment Insurance application (paper versions also in Spanish) --

Worked in California
Worked in California and Another State
Served in the Military
Worked for the Federal Government

Even though PUA and UI get most of the attention, there are also other types of claims (like partial claims and work sharing).

Some industries -- like entertainment -- have specific guidance about how to file properly in various scenarios, like receiving royalties for work that did not occur during the weeks you are unemployed.

And more ways to contact EDD here and here.

Note: This article was originally published August 7 and will continue to be updated as new information becomes available.

- Q&A -

Below is a live event Q&A we held about applying for unemployment. And there's a transcript from that event if you just can't even with a video right now.

- WHAT DO YOU WANT TO KNOW? ASK US QUESTIONS -

Screaming into the abyss has its merits, but the abyss doesn't typically respond with useful feedback. Try us instead.

Is there something you want to understand better? We've answered thousands of questions since the world turned upside down. Yours could be next.

Illustration (top): Lisa Brenner/LAist | Source image: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

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