Bay Area residents filing for unemployment find systemic challenges

A person holds a sign during a protest that says "Need to Work" (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images).

With many Californians losing their jobs due to coronavirus, over 4.6 million have applied for unemployment through the state's Employment Development Department (EDD). We're hearing from applicants that the process can be slow, confusing and difficult to navigate. Here are their stories:

A Livermore man feels "left in the dark" by the EDD.

Philip Paris, a union-employed glazer who works with metal and glass, lives in Livermore with his fiancé and his two kids. His fiancé is a nurse, and has been working during the pandemic, but he said that he brings in most of the family's income.

When Paris was no longer getting work at the start of the pandemic, he was able to use a few weeks of paid family leave that he had saved up. Once he had no more paid leave available, and no forseeable work in his future, he had to apply for unemployment.

Five weeks after applying, he said he hasn't heard from the EDD, and hasn't received any funds. He's started calling the EDD repeatedly--using multiple phones at once.

"I can't even get through on a phone call, because a lot of the time when I try to call using my phone, my fiancé's phone, any multiple phones at a time, every call just gets disconnected right away," Paris said.

He said that in his waiting and confusion, he has looked over his application many times in an attempt to identify a potential problem. He can't, and so he just keeps calling.

Paris said he feels let down by a system that was supposed to support him and his family during an emergency.

"There's a big disconnect as far as what we need, and what we expect," he said. "What we pay into as taxpayers--and what we're receiving right now," Paris said.

He said that his largest concern right now is how he's going to pay June rent, and that it's frustrating to not have any sense of where he stands with the EDD, and when he might expect income.

Paris had some words for the EDD: "If you can't get to us yet, then maybe have someone reach out with an email to us, letting us know that they're working on it, and they'll get there eventually, not just leave us in the dark."

An executive assistant says the EDD won't tell her what the issue is with her application.

Jade Travillian, an executive assistant living in Rodeo, said that she applied for unemployment five weeks ago. She received a letter in the mail within the ten days she was supposed to, which she thought was a good sign. 

She got a certification letter, and a notice of an account that did not yet contain any funds. She also got a letter asking her to confirm that she was looking for work. (The EDD no longer requires people to look for work while receiving funds during the pandemic.)

But two weeks later, she had no funds, and didn't get anything else in the mail. She was bewildered.

When she called the EDD, she said that it was not useful to her at all.

"The first call, I had a representative that seemed like she didn't know what she was doing," Travillian said. "And she ended up hanging up on me."

When she next called, after trying for many days, the representative was just as unsure as Travillian about why she hadn't received any funds.

"When I got another person they told me too, that they couldn't tell what was wrong. They couldn't tell if it was my address was wrong. She wasn't sure what the issue was."

That representative asked Travillian to file a question online through the EDD website. After doing that, and speaking to another representative, she was placed on a three day callback list to get an answer.

"I waited three days, never got a call," she said. "And so now we're on week five, and I've been calling since Saturday and I have not gotten through."

The fastest way to reach the EDD? This Vallejo woman says it's to mail them a letter.

Roxanne Seraphin, who was furloughed from her job as an esthetician, found herself with 6 weeks of penalty time before she could get unemployment insurance.

When she was trying to figure out why she was penalized, and how long it would be before she got her funds, she couldn't reach the EDD online or on the phone.

"At no point did they respond to my online query or anything like that," she said.

So, she wrote a letter, which she thinks is probably the fastest way to reach the EDD during the pandemic.

"I think it's really funny, and I've given a lot of people this advice: the fastest way to get to them was to write them a letter," Seraphin said. "I don't think I would have heard back from them, had I not mailed them a physical letter and mailed it."

She learned that she was one of many people across the country who has to serve anywhere from 5 to 23 weeks of time for an false penalty statement. In California, people who have to wait for their funds due to this can apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA).

After losing her restaurant job, Naomi Mojaddidi needed unemployment insurance, but has to wait due to a false statement penalty punishment. She is scared to look for work.

"After everything we've been through for the last six weeks...no money, no food....rent is already here!" Mojaddidi said. "And then we have to go out there and look for work, and put ourselves in even more danger."

She said that she is anxious to receive her letter on May 2, with instructions about how to apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

"You're more scared, like, oh my God, here we go again," she said. "Like, are they gonna do right by us, are they not gonna do right by us?"

Mojaddidi said that she continues to call regularly, to see if she can get any more information about the PUA.

This construction manager had filed for unemployment in 2017, and got a debit card with funds. In 2020, without this same card, she was unable to access her payments.

Jazmin Perez was out of work as soon as the shelter-in-place stopped allowing construction—about two weeks after the shutdown started on March 17.

She immediately filed for unemployment, and was approved. She had been on unemployment before, in 2017. Back then, they were issuing benefits on Bank of America debit cards, as the EDD continues to do now.

"They did not reissue me a new card," she said. "They wanted me to use the old card. I did not have that card in my possession any longer. I thought I had previously closed the card."

She went in-person to three different Bank of America branches, in three different cities, because many locations are closed, to try to get information. The EDD instructs people to contact Bank of America for debit card issues.

"They just kept saying that there was no way to pull my account," Perez said. Bank employees told her: "'We just don't deal with anything unemployment related,'" she recalled. "They have no access, and that there's absolutely no way to pull up your information unless you have the debit card with you."

Perez said that she called the Bank of America help line every day for a week, and was continually disconnected, receiving a "technical difficulty" message.

After KTVU posted a call for stories about EDD troubles on Twitter, someone replied to the post that they were in the same situation as Perez. Perez spoke with that person, who told her that she was able to get through on Bank of America's phone line at 1:30 a.m., after waiting three hours on the hold queue.

"So, last night, I was like, 'Okay, I'm up at midnight,'" Perez said. "I made the call around 12:45, and was on hold for about 48 minutes, and I got through to an agent. And it was about a two minute conversation, and my card was issued."

A Hayward doctor's office employee lost her job. The EDD says she can't have unemployment until 5 to 23 weeks from now, due to old overpayment fees which she says she paid.

Tiana Sullivan's last day of employment in a Castro Valley doctor's office was on March 5. She immediately applied for unemployment, but she says EDD started her claim on March 15—setting her back over a full week of benefits. After her unemployment insurance application was approved, she said she checked online to see the status of her payment.

She saw no payment. She wondered why. 

The site stated that she was facing a false statement penalty. Without an idea of what this meant, she set to research the language and determine what it could mean. 

"I went online, and if you received an overpayment, which I did, and I paid them back, they're saying it's a penalty for anywhere from five to 23 weeks," Sullivan said. "I can't get through to unemployment. I have no idea how long I'm gonna be penalized. I can't call, and I'm going on six weeks right now—no payment, can't get ahold of anyone, and I have no idea how long this is gonna last."

Sullivan is not the only one facing this challenge. KTVU has seen many Bay Area residents reach out with issues and questions concerning overpayment penalties. 

The EDD puts overpayment challenges into two categories: fraud and non-fraud. If you received benefits that you were not eligible for, and the EDD determines it was not your fault, that's considered non-fraud, and you'll get a notice requiring you to pay. If you don't pay, they could reduce or withhold your federal and state income tax refunds, lottery winnings or other money the state owes you. They could also file a claim against you in court and charge you court costs and interest. They might even record a lien on your property.

If a person gives false information on their unemployment application, or withholds information, the EDD considers a pursuant overpayment fradulent. "With a fraud overpayment, you can receive a penalty equal to 30 percent of the overpayment amount," the EDD states on their website. "Additionally, you can be disqualified for 5 to 23 weeks. You must repay fraud overpayments and penalties."

It's not clear how long Sullivan will have to wait.

A financial sales and hospitality worker was laid off of both jobs. She can't get unemployment funds for 9 weeks, due to an overpayment penalty from 2016, which she says was not her fault, and which she paid.

Jessica Rubin of Laguna Niguel never thought she'd have to apply for unemployment again, after she was on it for 2 months in 2016. A few months after receiving benefits, she received a call, notifying her that she had received more funds than she was eligible for. She said she was confused, and was provided with no greater detail.

"The next day, I just paid them back, didn't think it was really a big deal, and wasn't notified about anything other than that," Rubin said.

She acted swiftly, and didn't think to challenge the claim. Rubin paid the EDD, and didn't think about it again.

Until a few weeks ago.

She got a notice in the mail that she was approved for benefits, and should await a Bank of America card with her unemployment funds. When she didn't get the card for weeks, and heard that her coworkers who applied at the same time had already gotten benefits, she was concerned, and checked her online EDD account.

"When I logged in, I saw that there were penalty weeks," Rubin said. "It went from pending to penalty weeks, and I had no idea what was going on."

After calling the main EDD help line hundreds of times to no avail, she tried the overpayments line, and got through. A representative told her she'd just have to wait until the penalty weeks were up.

"Because of that overpayment—that was completely an error—I don't know happened...I'm really not sure, but because of that, and although I was in good standing because I paid everything back, I still have penalty weeks to serve," she said.

Now, as a month remains before she can get her unemployment benefits, Rubin feels exasperated, and is facing financial strain.

"I had to cancel my health insurance," she said. "I have not paid for my car registration—there are things that I have to pay for, that are going to have to be on the back burner for now."

Rubin knows she's not alone.

She signed a petition, which now has nearly 7,000 signatures from people who paid their false statement penalties and are in good standing. The signees, who often paid the penalty fee years back, remain punished with weeks or months of inability to collect money that they desparately need.

This furloughed San Rafael labor manager applied for unemployment right away. It still took him a month to receive benefits.

Skip Twitchell, a San Rafael labor manager for live events and concerts, said that after he was furloughed on March 21, he successfully applied for unemployment online, but he could not get any help with his application over the phone. “If you need to need to call in for any advice, good luck, because I’m sure they’re utterly swamped. Any time I tried to make a phone call there was absolutely no way to get through.”

It took him nearly 4 weeks to receive a Bank of America card which holds the unemployment funds. After registering the card online, he's finally able to use it. 

He said that people applying for unemployment shouldn't expect to get the help they need expediently; it's going to take a while.

"I got through in a month, which I'm sure is making a lot of people nervous to get through that far," he said. 

A South San Francisco casino employee lost most of his income. The EDD says he can't collect unemployment.

The casino where Peter Ishaq's works in San Bruno is shut down. He went from working 6 days a week to 4, losing many hours and a lot of pay—about $500 a week. The EDD initially said he qualified for unemployment benefits.

Ishaq said that when he was required to do a weekly income verification, the EDD said he had "excessive earnings" and that he could not receive any money. 

He said he had the choice to be laid off, but he wanted to keep working. That decision, he said, means that he now earns less than he would have if he got unemployment. 

Do you have a story about applying for unemployment that you want to share? Email Newstips@foxtv.com.

Caroline Hart is digital writer and investigator with KTVU. She can be reached at caroline.hart@foxtv.com.