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Your Questions About Filing For Unemployment As A Self-Employed Californian, Answered

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Starting today, California's Employment Development Department (EDD) has begun accepting unemployment claims from workers who wouldn't normally qualify. That includes self-employed workers, such as independent contractors, freelancers and small business owners.

Although California's Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program is now online, it can still be confusing. The state's Labor & Workforce Development Agency has posted its own FAQ to try to demystify the process. But many people still have questions.

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EDD spokesperson Loree Levy and employment attorney George Warner with Legal Aid at Work recently joined KPCC/LAist for a live digital event on unemployment (which you can watch the replay of above.) We had them answer your most asked questions about filing as a self-employed Californian.

This transcript from our Q&A has been edited for clarity.

LAist: A lot of self-employed workers have already applied through the normal Unemployment Insurance system. We got a question from a listener named John. He says, "I'm a self-employed independent contractor. I filed for unemployment on March 29. Should I cancel the filing and wait to file when the new system is set up for the self-employed?"

Levy: Unfortunately, we cannot cancel a claim. Once that is initiated, we do have to go ahead and process that. We are required to go back and look at how much earnings are there over the last 18 months in order to be able to substantiate a regular UI claim. And if there are some wages in that period, we are required to go ahead and initiate a regular Unemployment Insurance claim.


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The federal government wants us to consider a PUA claim as a last resort. So that's why we're saying, if it's really clear they're self-employed, or they're independent contractors, or business owners ... those are folks that [PUA] is intended to assist.

It does require some additional information we have to collect from you. For instance, you have to self-attest to your earnings. We're trying to get these payments made in phases. So we can start off with a minimum benefit. And then we collect some earnings information from you to see if we can substantiate a higher benefit amount. [The minimum weekly PUA benefit of $167, plus an additional $600 per week between March 29 and July 25, is outlined here.]

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LAist: Many workers, particularly rideshare drivers, may have already applied through the normal Unemployment Insurance program. Those kinds of claims [which may trigger a misclassification investigation for those who believe their employer should've treated them as an employee] can take a lot longer than the normal three-work turnaround time for receiving benefits. I've heard from some drivers who wonder if they should just go ahead and re-apply under PUA, because they might get benefits sooner.

Levy: Chances are, if you've already got a claim in the system, we'll have a record of that. And we have to do some things on the back end to process that. If you have not applied yet, and you believe you truly are a self-employed, independent contractor, those PUA benefits are designed to assist you.

We're going to be able to automate a lot of that. So some of those initial payments should be able to arrive pretty quickly as soon as people certify.

LAist: Can you tell us about the timing of payments for the people going through PUA? Is it also going to take three weeks, or will payments be sent out quicker than that?

Levy: It really depends on how straightforward the claim is. If you're a self-employed worker, and you're able to show us that [you've lost income] as a direct result of the pandemic, then those are the things we should be able to process very quickly once you get in and apply.

We can get those first benefit payments to you in pretty quick order -- within a couple of days -- as long as it's one of those straightforward claims and you already have your EDD debit card.

A lot of people do [have that card] from a past claim. That card is good for three years. So if you already have that card, that helps us in terms of turning around that first payment.

LAist: This question comes from Sarah, who writes, "My husband and I own a recording studio. I receive sporadic W-2 residual checks from work I originally did in the '80s and '90s, but our money really comes from running our studio. Our income varies. Who do I list as my employer?"

Levy: Most likely it is going to be yourself. If you're truly self-employed, that's your business. That's who you're going to be listing. And it's probably more of a Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claim.

Warner: There are a lot of people who have a lot of different employers. If you're working as an employee in any setting in the last 18 months, you should start by going through UI. Because if you're eligible for Unemployment Insurance, you're not eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

The system is a little harsh on those people, because they may be getting a weekly award based on a small fraction of their actual regular earnings. The people in that situation might want to consider looking at the Small Business Administration loan options.

Levy: We are required to look at the wages that someone has had over the last 18 months. And if there's enough there to qualify for a regular UI claim, that's how EDD has to proceed, with PUA being the last resort.

However, even if it is a small, regular Unemployment Insurance benefit, remember that between the end of March and the end of July, EDD is now automatically adding an additional $600 in federal stimulus benefits to each week of regular UI benefits. So that does help get a little bit more money into that weekly benefit amount.

LAist: I see a lot of people wondering why they're getting $0.00 determinations. Stan writes in, "I'm a freelance artist. I filed for coronavirus-related Unemployment Insurance benefits and I received a notice from EDD saying no benefits are available for my claim." Can you help people understand what that means?

Levy: Usually that means one of three things. Number one: Perhaps there weren't any wages reported for you. And if you're a true independent contractor, or self-employed, that makes sense. There was no employer to report any wages. It could also mean that you're going through an identity verification process. We weren't able to verify your identity, and we need to get some more information back from you before we can go ahead and release those wages.

It may have been that you believe you've been misclassified and you should have been considered an employee. When you get that notice, it's not necessarily a denial. If you don't agree, and think there should be wages there for you, you're asked to supply that information and return it to the address provided.

LAist: Larry wrote in with this question: He's self-employed and has a vending machine route. He writes, "I have 15 locations closed right now. Eleven of those are locations at schools, so they're going to be closed for a while. I'm down to working about 1.5 days a week now. Am I going to be able to collect unemployment?" So this is a self-employed person who sounds like they still have some work, but much less than they used to. Is he going to be eligible for PUA?

Levy: I think that's probably going to be the best route. This is for those who are truly self-employed and whose work has been impacted directly as a result of the pandemic.

LAist: Sonia writes in, "Is there a way to talk to an actual person at EDD?"

Levy: [That frustration] is so understandable, because this is probably the first time for many people that they've ever encountered the Unemployment Insurance program. So we understand that. There's just no way we can answer calls from millions and millions of people all at one time. That's just the unfortunate circumstance.

We don't want to leave you empty handed. There are some video tutorials in five different languages on our website to help you navigate the UI online system. There's a step-by-step chart helping understand what to expect after you apply.

But we do know that some people need an additional helping hand. So we added additional call center operations, with a separate phone number available seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. We're getting hundreds of redirected employees to aid with this very necessary assistance.

It's a special line that we created: 833-978-2511.