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A Step-By-Step Guide To Getting The Most Money Possible From Your Unemployment Benefits In California
This is not a drill. Changing rules. Changing payments. Changing qualifications. And millions of people trying to figure out a system that was inscrutable to begin with.
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Millions of Californians 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 and created etc). There have been massive payment delays. And a learning curve. And months of limited-to-no live contact from representatives. And phones that went 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 been nearly impossible to speak to an actual human person and get it resolved quickly.

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

At the end of September, more than 1.5 million Californians were waiting for their unemployment checks. In an effort to improve its processes (and speed up payments, and square the backlog, and reduce fraud) the Employment Development Department stopped accepting new claims for a two-week "reset period" that began in September. Filing was fully operational again, as of Oct. 5.

And, after allowing aid to lapse, President Trump did sign a pandemic relief bill on Dec. 27 which will extend federal unemployment benefits to provide $300 per week. However, because of the timing, processing delays are expected.

California's EDD website has some videos and a detailed FAQ (or two, or three) about how to navigate all of this — but you can also ask us your questions directly.

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

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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.

The best case scenario is getting $450 per week from the state.

But it might be as low as $40.

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Possibly you'll get something in between.

In addition to your state benefits, you're also entitled to an extra $300 per week in federal benefits through the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program — but only through March 14, 2021.

California has yet to announce when it will start delivering the new federal weekly supplement, but payments will be back dated to Dec 26, 2020. All unemployment recipients should be eligible for this federal add-on.

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.

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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.

There's also an EDD check calculator.

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:
    • Name
    • Address
    • Phone number
    • Social Security number
    • California driver license or ID card
    • Citizenship status
    • Your last employer (name, address, phone number)
    • The last date you worked
    • The reason you're not working there now
    • Your gross earnings from the last week you worked
    • 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).
    • 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.

EDD officials now have clarified that you do not need to open a new claim if you had a balance on your existing claim before the CARES benefits ran out.

The Self-Employed

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (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
  • Freelancers
  • Independent contractors
  • People with a limited work history

And others who qualify.

This modification is being supported by the federal PUA program, which Congress originally created in the spring of 2020 as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act — and later extended in the winter as part of a new COVID relief bill. These pieces of legislation are sometimes referred to as a stimulus package and/or a coronavirus relief package. The knee bone's connected to the... something.

PUA was originally set to run through Dec. 26, but Congress has now extended it. The program will continue taking new applicants until March 14, 2021. And those already on the program will be able to collect benefits until April 5, 2021, as long as they are still under the 50-week limit.

The $600 Hole

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

However, that benefit dried up at the end of July, and Congress waited until late December to extend the federal add-on.

For a brief period of time, many unemployment recipients received an extra $300 per week under an executive order signed by President Donald Trump. The Lost Wages Assistance (LWA) program meant another $300 per week for those:

  • already receiving at least $100 per week in benefits
  • certifying for unemployment due to COVID-19

Payments for the LWA program were processed starting on September 7, and were backdated to July 26.

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

Once all federal supplements went away on September 5, Californians reverted to receiving weekly state 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.

Now, the federal supplement is coming back — but at just half the previous level. All unemployment recipients should be eligible for up to 11 weeks of $300 payments under the new COVID relief bill.

In certain cases, you may be entitled to an extra $100 on top of the $300 supplement. This additional weekly payment is reserved only for people with "mixed incomes" who've found themselves shortchanged by the unemployment system due to a loophole in how benefits are calculated.

Long story short, some freelancers with small amounts of W2 employment income in their recent work history are seeing all of their 1099 self-employment income disregarded by the unemployment system. The result is a benefit amount that's much lower than it should be, had their past income been considered in full. More information on that loophole can be found here.

To qualify for the $100 federal mixed-income supplement, you must have reported at least $5,000 in self-employment income during the most recent tax year — AND have been disqualified from the PUA program covering most freelancers. States must opt in to this relief. Whether or not California will participate remains to be seen. Even if California does sign on, it's currently unclear how EDD will verify your past income for eligibility, or when the department will start delivering the benefit. Stay tuned for further guidance on that.

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 And Paid Family Leave

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

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) —
  • 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