$300 unemployment checks coming in September, but may be 'too little, too late'

Unemployed people in California who qualify for at least $100 in unemployment insurance benefits per week will receive three payments of $300 a week starting on September 7, the Employment Development Department (EDD) announced Thursday. The announcement comes nearly a month after the federal $600 weekly benefit expired at the end of July, which supported the record numbers of unemployed Californians during the pandemic. 

The extra funds are a result of the Presidential Memorandum which allocated $4.5 billion from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on August 8. That memorandum came after Democrats and Republicans in Congress could not come to a consensus about a viable replacement for the $600 weekly benefit.

California had one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country for the week of August 8. There are 11 million more unemployed workers than job openings nationwide, according to Heidi Shierholz, senior economist and director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute. 

“It didn't go through normal channels where we have the administrative setup to be able to get those benefits to people quickly,” said Shierholz. “It's devastating that right now, regular unemployment insurance benefits replace, for most people, around 40% of your prior income.”

EDD officials wrote in a press release that in addition to the minimum benefit requirement of $100, claimants must also “have provided self-certification that they are unemployed or partially unemployed due to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

The processing will commence in two phases: the first will cover those who already said that they’re unemployed due to COVID-19, and the second will cover those who did not indicate they were unemployed due to a COVID-19 on their first unemployment application. Those who did not initially indicate job loss due to COVID-19 will have the opportunity to say whether they have since, on a one-time self-certification form sent by email, text or mail in mid-September.

Without supplemental benefits, Shierholz said, people who lost their jobs in the midst of a global pandemic can’t exist on such reduced funds for long without “a huge decline in their living standards” or without having to make difficult decisions between paying rent, getting food on the table and paying for medicine. There are an estimated 12 million people who have lost their health insurance due to job loss. 

“There's a chance that people will only be seeing $900,” said George Warner, an attorney at Legal Aid at Work. 

Although the EDD said in a release that benefit funding could be increased beyond the amount allotted for three weeks, the agency has not indicated any specifics or confirmed any details about increases. 

Warner said that he sees two main problems with the $300 benefit: that it is available for only 3 weeks while pandemic conditions remain the same, and that those who make less than $100 in unemployment benefits are ineligible. Unemployment benefits are calculated based on wages from previous reported jobs.

“The people who get less than $100 in benefits in California are some of the most vulnerable people in the system,” Warner said. 

He said that there are two groups of people who are generally receiving less than $100 a week: the first is people who have a limited work history, or are paid extremely low wages while working. 

“Those people deserve a supplement to their unemployment insurance just like everyone else,“ he said. “The second group is people who are largely self employed over the last 18 months, but have limited employment history, in addition to their self employment. And those people may have been high earners.”

Stephen de Ropp of Alameda, who works in the film industry and as a cameraperson, said that since he and many in his field are self employed, many colleagues get around $70 in unemployment, because they only report a miniscule amount of income on any W-2 forms. He was a little better off than his friends because he reported some earnings one quarter.

“People I know are literally getting $70 a week, and so that $600 a week wasn't extra,” de Ropp said. “That's just what they were living off of. For me, that's what I was using. It wasn't extra. It wasn't this big bonus. That was all I was getting really.”

Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, said that she thinks the $300 supplement is “too little too late.”

“They're agreeing to $300 for three weeks, but that is subject to the availability of disaster relief funds,” Evermore said. “There are disasters happening in California, there was a big disaster in Iowa, two hurricanes are hitting the Gulf Coast right now, simultaneously. So it's not clear how long the disaster relief funds will even last.”

Evermore also said that she thinks this allocation of FEMA funds will negatively impact the budget of California funds that are supposed to support natural disaster relief. 

“This benefit has an effect on the overall Disaster Relief Fund, which I think is important right now,” Evermore said. “People are going to need that money to rebuild after these fires.”

Many people in California said that they relied on the $600 benefit to support themselves and their families. But many others have struggled because they haven’t received funds they qualified for, or faced long delays due to the agency’s inability to support the historic influx of applications.

Hilda Lopez of San Leandro, an early childhood educator, was laid off from her job at an agency serving preschools and daycares. She applied to get unemployment at the beginning of July and hasn’t heard a peep, or received a dime from the EDD after persistent attempts. 

“Time goes by and I really need money,” Lopez said. “I need to pay my rent, and I need to pay  bills and everything.” “...It’s very frustrating. And it's like, really, you can do nothing because it's impossible to talk to someone.”

Li Li Clever, a jewelry designer and teacher based in San Luis Obispo, said that it was “as though a tsunami ripped through (her) life overnight” after all her opportunities to sell jewelry were cancelled, and she got evicted from her apartment of 10 years. She immediately applied for unemployment, and waited 2.5 months before she got any funds.

“So I basically sold like half of my worldly belongings, a lot of my jewelry, clothing, family heirlooms, anything I could just to get by,” Clever said.

Luckily, she was able to rent an inexpensive room after a friend posted on her behalf on the website Nextdoor. She said that the $600 supplement was a lifeline for meeting basic needs. Without it, she said that she has turned to bartering her jewelry for food. 

Clever added that she feels incredibly fortunate to a community which has supported her in finding housing, and showing care by doing things like leaving bags of groceries on her doorstep. 

“This situation could easily drive a person to suicide," she said, "where you just feel hopeless and helpless and like you have no control over your life or the world around you."