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Millions in CA Still Have Questions About How To Get Unemployment Benefits. We Have Answers.

(Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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Federal unemployment benefits have ended. Nearly a million Californians have applied for unemployment benefits and are likely eligible, but haven't received them. And according to the latest numbers, L.A. County still has an unemployment rate of close to 20%.

The need for unemployment benefits has never been greater in our recent history. But for millions of out-of-work Californians, navigating the state's confusing and outdated unemployment system can feel like taking on a new full-time job.

Since March, you've sent us hundreds of questions about unemployment. Here are answers to some of the most commonly asked ones. If you're still left scratching your head after reading this, we are still taking your questions.

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I've heard that federal unemployment benefits have expired. Are freelancers and self-employed workers still eligible for benefits?

Yes. If you're a freelancer who has lost work due to the coronavirus pandemic, you can still collect unemployment.

But if you thought you'd been left in the lurch, that's totally understandable. Early in this pandemic, Congress quilted together a confusing patchwork of new unemployment programs, and named them all with confusingly similar acronyms. Among this alphabet soup of new programs, some have expired while others are still active.

One program was called Pandemic Additional Compensation, or PAC for short. That program gave anyone receiving unemployment benefits an extra $600 per week, courtesy of the federal government. But PAC was only scheduled to last a few months, and it ended in late July. It could be extended in some form, but Congress has so far not reached a deal on that.

The program that provides benefits to freelancers -- and other types of workers who would normally be ineligible for unemployment -- is still up and running. That program is called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, and it runs through December 26.

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From the questions we've been getting, it seems like many freelancers think that PAC ending means that PUA has also run out. But that's not the case. If you're an out-of-work freelancer, go ahead and file an unemployment claim. In California, you could be awarded benefits from $167 to $450 per week, depending on your past income. For now, you just won't get that extra $600 per week tacked on to your claim.

If lawmakers extend the federal unemployment benefits that expired in July, will those payments be retroactive?

While we wish we had an unemployment-themed crystal ball, we can't tell you for sure that any newly approved benefits will stretch back to late July.

We can say that when we put this question to unemployment experts, they all assumed that potential new programs would compensate people for the weeks they had to go without the additional federal benefits.

The question is what will replace the expired $600-per-week benefit? A few options are on the table, but none are a sure thing yet.

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Congress is now in recess, but it could eventually come up with a new stimulus package that extends additional federal t benefits at the previous $600 level...or lower...or according to some other formula.

The state of California could also step in to fill the gap. Some Sacramento lawmakers have proposed using state funds to make up for the loss of federal benefits. You can read more about that here.

Then there's the plan rolled out by President Trump. He recently signed an executive order approving $300 per week in federal benefits for a short period of time, with the possibility of states chipping in another $100 per week. If implemented, those payments would go back to Aug. 1. But Governor Gavin Newsom has called Trump's plan "absurd," and said California may not be able to afford it.

Trump's plan isn't necessarily dead in the water, though. California's Employment Development Department (EDD), which administers unemployment benefits in the state, said in an email to LAist:

"The EDD is working closely with state and federal partners to assess the implementation of the Presidential Memoranda on lost wage assistance for eligible claimants. We will be providing details just as soon as they are available and we encourage our customers to watch our EDD website for updates."

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Can self-employed people collect unemployment benefits if they also receive money from the Paycheck Protection Program?

It's possible, but complicated. Make sure you fully understand the rules of both programs before going this route.

Some L.A. freelancers who feel shortchanged by the unemployment system have ditched it in favor of a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Because these workers are technically small business owners, they can apply for a PPP loan and use it to pay themselves, as well as any business expenses they might have.

But paying yourself through a PPP loan while also collecting unemployment benefits could be dicey. If you're collecting unemployment, you must report any income you earn to the EDD -- and that includes income from a PPP loan. If your income is too large, it could wipe out your unemployment benefits.

If you're only partially compensating yourself with PPP money, state unemployment officials say you could still qualify for some unemployment benefits.

"If the individual is working less than their usual hours, they could be eligible to receive some benefits," an EDD representative told us in an email. "For example, if an individual earns $100 in one week, the EDD would only deduct $75 from the weekly benefit amount. So if someone had a weekly benefit amount of $300, they would receive $225 in UI benefits."

If I go back to work part-time, will I lose my benefits?

That depends on how many hours you're getting, and how fat your paycheck will be when you go back.

Partial benefits are available for those working reduced hours. You won't get your full unemployment benefit award, but you can still get some money to soften the blow.

The formula for calculating weekly benefits for part-time salaried workers is the same as it is for the part-time self-employed. In an email, EDD representatives provided this example:

"The first $25 or 25% of your wages, whichever is greater, is not counted as wages earned and will not be deducted from your weekly benefit amount. For example, if you earned $100 in a week, we would not count $25 as wages and would only deduct $75 from your weekly benefit amount. If you had a weekly benefit amount of $450, you would be paid $375."

And remember, any amount of unemployment benefits, no matter how small, could entitle you to the additional benefits discussed above -- that is, if they're extended and if they still work according to the same rules as the expired $600-per-week program.

However, it is possible to go back to work part-time and earn so much that you end up losing your unemployment benefits entirely.

Attorney DeCarol Davis with Legal Aid At Work said there's one easy way to estimate whether going back to work will wipe out your benefits. Take your current weekly benefit award and multiply it by 1.33.

"That's going to be the amount where your benefits stop," Davis said. "For example, if you make $200 in your weekly benefit amount, you multiply that by 1.33. They're always going to round up, so that's going to equal approximately $267. Once you make more than that $267 [per week] your unemployment insurance is going to stop."

You'll need to do this calculation for your own weekly benefit award, which can be anywhere from $40 to $450 per week.

I lost my job early in the pandemic, then came back to work, then got laid off again. How do I get back on unemployment? How do I restart my claim?

We know that getting laid off twice during the pandemic sounds like a nightmare. But it's actually very common in California right now.

Getting back on unemployment should be a fairly straightforward process, but it depends on what you've been doing during the weeks you were recalled to work.

Some people keep certifying for weekly benefits, even after they've gone back to work full-time. By reporting your weekly income to EDD, you keep your claim active (even though you won't be eligible for benefits). That way, if you get laid off a second time or have your hours cut back, you can easily start certifying for benefits again.

If you stopped certifying after returning to work, your claim may have become inactive. In that case, simply log back into your UI Online account and look for the option to "Reopen Your Claim" under the Notifications section. The EDD's website has a step-by-step guide and a Youtube video outlining this process.

However, if your claim is more than 52 weeks old, you'll have to start all over by filing a new claim.

How do I find my EDD Customer Account Number? It never came in the mail, and I can't find it online or in my emails.

This is a frustrating problem, because you need a Customer Account Number to register for UI Online, the portal where you can certify for weekly benefits.

EDD claims this number is mailed to all new filers within 10 days. But from the volume of questions we're getting on this, it seems like that's not always happening.

The EDD's website says if you're having trouble with your Customer Account Number, you should call the department at 1-800-300-5616 between 8 a.m. and noon on weekdays. But fair warning: You're unlikely to reach a person through that line.

"I have been advising hundreds of people for several months on trying to access unemployment benefits during the pandemic, said Matthew Clark, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. "And I have not heard from a single person who has ever gotten through to the ordinary EDD application line."

Some users have reportedly discovered unconventional workarounds to hunt down their Customer Account Numbers on the EDD website. But we're not advising you to try any unapproved methods.

We do have a possible solution, which leads us to probably the most common question we're getting:

How can I talk to a person at EDD to get help with my claim? I've been calling for months and have never been able to reach a human.

Instead of calling that main application number above, Clark suggests trying the EDD's general support line: 1-833-978-2511. It's staffed by more than 1,000 people, seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Clark said most of his clients have successfully reached a person through that line. But be warned: it does require multiple attempts.

For those of you trying to reach someone for help beyond tracking down your Customer Account Number, keep in mind that the people answering that phone line may not be fully trained caseworkers. So they may not be able to immediately fix your problem.

The good news? You can ask them to place you on a callback list. You'll eventually be contacted by someone who can address your problem. The bad news? That callback list has an average wait time of anywhere from four to eight weeks, according to recent testimony at a Sacramento legislative hearing from EDD director Sharon Hilliard.