Californians awaiting unemployment funds still struggle to meet basic needs

As the Employment Development Department addresses backlogged unemployment applications and fraud following a two-week pause on claims, many eligible Californians have been awaiting their checks for months. It’s time they can’t afford, as they cannot meet basic needs and fall behind on bills. 

Others can’t collect a check, or the extra $300 weekly supplement at all, due to eligibility quirks or systemic issues. People in low wage industries, including day laborers, construction workers, domestic workers and janitors, are often paid in cash and ineligible for benefits. 

“The three basic categories who are traditionally not included are workers who don't have the right to work, and independent contractors and workers who may be W-2 workers, but if you did quit or been fired for good reason,” said former EDD director Michael Bernick.

Bernick said that during the pandemic, a new program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance allows independent contractors to collect unemployment, and that those people now constitute a good percentage of total claimants. 

Ronnie Maiden, a substitute teacher in Locke, a small town in the delta, said that her unemployment application has been held up for four months.

"Tomorrow will be my 16th week of no money," she said. "I have two dollars."

Maiden borrowed money to pay for teaching credentials, which helped her get some part-time work. But she has been stretching her budget to afford food.

“I don’t mind eating beans and tortillas—I actually like them," she said. "But it sucks to have them every day.”

She said that having no money and no answers has taken a toll on her sense of wellbeing.

“It makes me angry, it makes me frustrated, it makes me feel helpless...sometimes hopeless,” she said.

In a follow-up interview, Maiden confirmed that she was finally able to cerfify for benefits after nearly 5 months of waiting.

But she's far from the only Californian struggling to make ends meet.

Gwendolyn Joyce, an unemployed waitress in Orange County, is living off of $88 dollars a week. The restaurant she worked at gradually closed, as it became less and less busy during the pandemic.

Because she incrementally started working fewer shifts, she said that she was working very little when she applied for unemployment, and that affected how much she receives weekly on her claim.

“When I saw that we're going to get $300 a week, I thought to myself, well, that'll help me get along until I get a job,” Joyce said. “Because $88 a week isn't good, isn't going to make it—it just isn't going to make it.”

Because Joyce makes under the $100 requirement to receive the 5-week, $300 supplement, she did not receive any additional funds. 

“I have called Sprint, I've called DirecTV and tell them the situation I'm in: ‘Please help me,’” she said. “And I mean, I'm getting by, but it's hard getting by.” 

Undocumented workers, who make up 10% of the workforce in California, according to Alexx Campbell, an attorney at Legal Aid at Work, have been hit especially hard by the pandemic because they cannot access social safety nets, like unemployment. 

“There are a lot of folks who aren't able to access unemployment insurance easily because they've been working maybe under the table, getting paid in cash,” Campbell said. “Their employers, as a result, haven't been reporting their earnings to the state or to EDD.” 

When these people apply for unemployment, Campbell said, the state has no record of their past employment, which is the basis for how much they are calculated to get under unemployment. Unemployment insurance is calculated based on your earnings of the past 18 months.

Brennan Anderson, a bartender in Roseville, applied for unemployment benefits in March, and was unable to receive benefits he was eligible for for four months. A 2019 unemployment claim that he cancelled and never even collected stood in the way, and forced him to open a second application in June. 

“If I calculated right, just like close like $10,000 that I'm missing out on,” he said. 

Anderson said that because he could not rely on unemployment funds, he went back to work at his restaurant earlier than he felt comfortable.

“I'm risking my son's life by going to work, and working in a restaurant, meeting new people all the time—no telling what, if they have COVID or not,” he said. “So it’s just very, very hurtful that I didn't get anything, and then I probably won't.” 

Bernick said that people who are having issues with their application should persist contacting the EDD, as he has found that most people who continue contacting the EDD eventually get their funds. Unfortunately, many workers can’t afford to wait. 

RESOURCES: Ways to reach the EDD to find out about benefits

JR Russell, who is also a waiter, waited three months to receive benefits and struggled financially. Food stamps and an eviction moratorium kept him afloat during that time, he said. 

“It drained completely my savings that I had,” he said. “It actually put my checking account into the negative by about probably seven or eight hundred dollars. I had $40 cash on hand to last until the unknown date of when I was going to get paid."

Caroline Hart is a writer and producer with KTVU. She covers unemployment, inequality, food insecurity, senior care issues, breaking news, and much more. She can be reached at