Coronavirus $ 600 unemployment boost in California

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Californians struggling to find work will receive an additional $ 600 in weekly unemployment benefits from a federal stimulus package starting Sunday, Governor Gavin Newsom said while a deluge of 2.3 million news claims last month made it difficult for the state to get payments for those who just lost their jobs.

The additional congressional relief money means that California’s average weekly benefit of $ 340 will be increased to $ 940, while those who get the state’s maximum weekly benefit will have their checks increased to $ 1,050. The higher benefits will last four months.

The first payment will be made on Sunday to those whose requests are already processed and concerns the week ending April 11. Payments will be credited to state employment development debit cards.

“Many Californians are feeling the effects of this pandemic, and this additional benefit is very important to our workers, so they needed resources during this difficult time,” Newsom said in a statement Thursday.

Newsom said the 2.3 million new jobless claims processed in the past four weeks were more than all claims filed in 2019. The state paid nearly $ 684.3 million in unemployment benefits over from the last month. For the week ending April 4, the Employment Development Department processed 925,450 applications, an increase of 2,418% from the same week last year.

“This is extremely important,” said Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), chair of the Senate labor committee, about the larger payments. “It will make a difference to people – whether or not they can do it in this state. “

But the state is seeing a storm of complaints from new unemployed workers who have been unable to contact the employment development service over the phone for help with filing claims. In response, state lawmakers called on the agency on Thursday to immediately extend the call center’s business hours beyond the currently scheduled 8 am to noon daily window.

The economic damage inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed other flaws in California’s program to help the unemployed, including state benefits that have not kept pace with inflation and a shortage of funds Reserve that could force the state to borrow billions of dollars from the federal government must pay the claims.

The state is also struggling to put in place a system to implement part of the federal law on aid, relief and economic security against coronaviruses which, for the first time, will provide unemployed benefits to workers contractual and on leave and those of the concert economy. These checks can still be in weeks.

“This is a perfect storm,” said Carole Vigne, a lawyer with Legal Aid at Work, which provides free services to low-income people seeking help for employment problems. “There is no way an agency of this size can handle this immediate influx. I expect fairly long delays despite all their efforts. “

Newsom said this week that it is aware of the problems with processing so many new requests.

“We are trying in real time to improve our ability to deliver,” he said during a press briefing on Tuesday. “Obviously, we all need to do more and do better to respond to the increase in inquiries and requests.”

Many unemployed Californians have complained on social media that they, or others they know, have been unable to reach ESD over the phone to file new claims and get help for the problems that prevent them from filing online.

San Fernando Valley resident John Muscarnero, who recently lost his job in the restaurant industry, said it was disconcerting that EDD call centers were only open four hours a day and that calls are left with long waits and unanswered by a living person.

“I have called dozens of times. I never succeeded, “said Muscarnero, who failed to sort through the paperwork regarding his claim for unemployment benefits. “It is the most frustrating and punitive process.”

He said he had to choose between paying his rent and other bills, including paying for his car.

“The level of anxiety goes through the roof,” he said.

Downtown Los Angeles resident Fernando, who spoke to The Times on the condition that his last name not be used, had trouble filing a claim after losing his job at a mobile phone company. He said he called EDD and waited more than 90 times before finally having someone on the phone who helped him process his request.

“It is an unfortunate situation,” he said. “Someone who has been laid off will not be able to pay their bills, buy groceries, pay their rent.”

Opening telephone lines for just four hours a day is not acceptable, said Hill, who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Labor, Public Employment and Retirement, which oversees ESD.

“They should go 12 hours a day,” said Hill. ” The phone [line] is the crucial part of the process. If you can do it online, you’ve solved your problem, but if you can’t do it online for some reason, you’re almost in hell because you can’t do anything unless you talk to someone. a. “

MP Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) wrote to Newsom Thursday to request that EDD telephone hours be extended from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and additional hours are scheduled on Saturdays. He noted that some of his constituents said they had to wait 2.5 hours on the phone, and that his own staff tried to pass and had to wait 39 minutes or more.

“Dozens have complained that the reminder feature just doesn’t work because they never get a reminder,” wrote Patterson. “Even more frustrating, many voters said they would wait on hold for long periods of time, to be suddenly disconnected, either while they are on hold and / or when they finally reach a representative. “

Many people calling EDD call centers have language barriers that prevent them from completing the online claims process or face technological barriers, including lack of Internet access, which Vigne says is particularly a problem for low-wage workers.

Staffing is an issue that has hampered the handling of telephone and online complaints.

A federal employer tax pays state personnel costs to process claims, and allowances are made based on workload. With unemployment peaking in recent years, federal funding for states to administer unemployment has fallen by 30% in the past decade, said Maurice Emsellem, Fair Chance program director at the National Employment Law Project at Berkeley. .

“It’s basically a boom or a recession,” said Emsellem.

As a result, the number of EDD employees assigned to the field office where most of the initial requests are processed increased from 3,067 in 2010 during the Great Recession to 1,516 this year, officials said.

“You have half the staff doing more work,” said Hill.

ESD has taken steps to fill part of this gap by recruiting retirees and relocating hundreds of state workers from other jobs to help process new requests and answer telephone calls, said the secretary. Labor Minister Julie Su said in a Facebook post on Sunday.

“I want to recognize the challenges that people can have. I know it can be frustrating, ”said Su. “We are doing everything we can at the moment.”

She said the agency is working hard to get requests processed within three weeks.

The US government standard requires 90% of unemployment benefit claims to be processed within 21 days, and California was able to stay close to that number in February, according to the latest reports from the United States Department of Labor. During the week ending February 29, the department said California had processed 85.7% of the first requests within 21 days.

Vigne said March’s performance will be more telling when claims have soared.

State officials would not disclose new figures, but said “efficiencies,” including waiving certain checks until the check was issued, and processing many requests through a automated system, allow most requests to be processed within three weeks.

Once the additional $ 600 in the federal stimulus package is exhausted, another shortcoming of the California system will be more evident: benefit amounts have not kept pace with inflation as they do in other states.

Benefits are paid with a tax paid by employers on the first $ 7,000 of an employee’s salary, but California has not increased this taxable amount since 1984, said Emsellem.

As a result, the average weekly benefit in California is only 25% of the state’s average weekly wage of $ 1,340, so people who lose their jobs only get a small portion of their earnings, a- he declared.

Elected officials have been reluctant to raise taxes on employers, so the financial problem has increased.

“It’s much worse,” said Emsellem. “The political dynamic is that employers have pushed back any kind of financial reform.”

The independent office of the legislative analyst said Thursday that public servants could increase benefits for unemployed California workers by either giving everyone the maximum weekly benefit of $ 450 or adding $ 100 a week in addition to the payment of federal stimulus. The two options would cost about $ 1 billion more a month, the office estimates.

The costs could be covered by a loan from the federal government. When states don’t have enough money to pay unemployment claims during periods of recession, states borrow from the federal unemployment trust fund and the money is paid back in part with a higher tax temporarily imposed on employers.

California went through there with the Great Recession when it had to borrow $ 10.7 billion from Washington. The loan was not repaid until 2018, but in the meantime, California has had to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in interest on its federal debt.

In 2019, before the pandemic, California collected $ 5.9 billion in unemployment insurance taxes from employers and issued about $ 5.5 billion in total benefits.

More borrowing is unavoidable not only in California but also in many other states because of the magnitude of the unemployment problem caused by the pandemic, said Hill.

The federal standard is that states should maintain a reserve capable of paying a year of claims during a recession, but Emsellem said that at the end of 2019, California had less than four months of reserves.

“If it goes on much longer, most states will end up borrowing from the federal government and it won’t be pretty,” he said.



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