Frustration mounts as unemployment benefits come to an end

NO ANSWER—Many unemployed Californians have been struggling with little or no response from the Employment Development Department, the state agency responsible for handling unemployment claims.

NO ANSWER—Many unemployed Californians have been struggling with little or no response from the Employment Development Department, the state agency responsible for handling unemployment claims.

Leeann Mesa filed for unemployment benefits in December, after she had to quit her job to care for her second foster child. The benefits helped the Moorpark resident and mother of four pay for groceries and bills for six months.

But that changed in June when her benefits stopped.

She has called the Employment Development Department multiple times each day since then but said trying to get in touch with someone who could help was a nightmare.

Mesa is one of over 1.4 million unemployed Californians who, since March 2020 when the pandemic upended the world economy, have been struggling to get help from the state’s embattled unemployment agency. The EDD paid out billions in fraudulent claims and has struggled to keep pace with the millions of weekly phone calls from jobless people across the state.

With federal pandemic unemployment benefits—including the $300-per-week payments—set to expire Sept. 4, Mesa said, she and her family will focus on just staying afloat.

“It is going to hinder us,” said Mesa, who has eliminated unnecessary expenses and sold personal belongings online to earn money. “But we will just continue to do what we’re doing and hope that I get back to working soon.”

The unemployment rate in Ventura County was 6.5% in July, compared to 7.9% across the state and 5.7% across the nation, according to an Employment Development Department report.

The numbers are all higher than the February 2020 rates of 4.3% (county), 3.7% (state), and 3.5% (country).

Alejandro Castro, president, and food manager for Ruben Castro Charities, assists residents who receive unemployment benefits on a regular basis—they make up a large number of the 400 to 500 families his organization distributes free food to each week.

Most people he speaks with were laid off at the beginning of the pandemic and had to rely on benefits for the first time in their lives while they struggled to find work. He expects an even greater demand after the benefits expire.

“I know people are definitely worried about it,” Castro said.

Moorpark resident Kaitlin Stillwagon, who also applied for unemployment in December, agreed with Mesa that the benefits were extremely useful while they lasted.

Stillwagon had used all her regular benefits by the end of June.

“The money was definitely helpful while I was receiving it . . . but that made them ending all the more worse,” Stillwagon said.

The EDD notified Stillwagon that she was eligible for pandemic emergency unemployment compensation and would receive paperwork within seven to 10 days.

She said she never received any paperwork, and despite calling EDD nearly every day, she’s never heard back.

“Because they aren’t getting back to anyone or answering their phones, I have been without income for two months now, and my family has suffered,” Stillwagon said.

When asked about customers’ inability to contact EDD, a media spokesperson told the Acorn that call centers are open 12 hours a day, seven days a week and the department is working to improve customer service.

According to a statement released May 4, the department was directing residents to online services and hiring hundreds of new employees to address the demand.

Mesa and Stillwagon, like countless others, have yet to see improvements at the state agency.

EDD’s call center received nearly 2.2 million calls during the week ending Aug. 21; about 243,000 were from unique callers, and about 201,000 were answered by staff, according to the most recent EDD phone call data.

In addition to facing criticism for its backlog, the EDD has been under fire for admitting to paying at least $11 billion in fraudulent claims in January.

Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin told the Acorn that although she has seen improvements in the department over the past few months, EDD needs to do better.

“Clearly EDD is dysfunctional; otherwise, my staff wouldn’t have had to help thousands of people access their benefits during the pandemic,” she said. “We want the benefits to go out as quickly as possible, but we also want to prevent fraud.”

To receive unemployment benefits, Californians must show they are looking for work, but this has been challenging for Stillwagon, who cannot afford child care for her two children. She also said the jobs she has come across either do not pay enough or require too many qualifications.

She said she wishes the unemployment benefits would be extended through the end of the year.

“It almost feels like they didn’t take into consideration families’ struggles with ending the benefits and how hard it is for parents to work even without a pandemic,” said Stillwagon, who now has a negative balance in her savings account as well as countless bills.

It can be difficult to ask for help, but Castro encourages people to seek assistance sooner rather than later.

“The stigma is real . . . but don’t wait to get help,” Castro said. “We find that people come to us after they have exhausted everything else and they’re at the point where food is scarce and they don’t know where they’re going to get their next meal.”

Although she feels she has earned the right to receive unemployment benefits after working since the age of 16, Mesa said she wishes others were more mindful about their preconceptions toward those who receive benefits.

“I hate telling people I collect unemployment,” she said. “Because if I hear about it in a conversation or I see it on social media, it’s always in a negative frame of mind. It’s always, ‘People are lazy, they don’t want to go to work,’ and in our case, that’s not true.”

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