Pandemic unemployment assistance open to those serving penalties; frustrations persist

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) is now available for independent contractors, gig workers and self-employed workers. It also extends to people who are ineligible for unemployment insurance, like those who are serving overpayment penalties.

Tiana Sullivan is one of the more than 3.7 million Californians who've now applied for unemployment insurance after losing jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic. She's been waiting on help for more than a month.  

“I still have bills," said Sullivan. "I don’t have anyone else to take care of me. Without this income, I’m screwed."

Sullivan is one of the many people who've contacted KTVU, ineligible for state benefits, because they're serving an overpayment penalty. Basically, this is when someone receives state aid for a time they should not have. The Economic Development Department (EDD) considers this "fraud." 

The law requires you pay the money back, pay a penalty and you are ineligible to collect unemployment for anywhere between five to 23 weeks. After being approved, Tiana was told she was disqualified for an overpayment caused by what she calls her clerical mistake. She has already paid the money back. 

“I have no idea how long I’m going to be penalized, I can’t call," said Sullivan. "I’m going on six weeks, no payment, can’t get ahold of anyone, have no idea how long this is going to last.”

Roxanne Seraphin already paid her penalty as well and served six weeks. But, because she can't get ahold of anyone, she says there's no way to get her money. “Am I just going to be PUA? Or will I continue with my UI, because theoretically I’m eligible to receive my payments now," said Seraphin.

This week, the EDD announced people serving penalties can receive aid through PUA. It is the same program now live for self-employed people and independent contractors.

“If you are a claimant who has already applied for UI, but have to serve penalty weeks, you’re not going to have to reapply, asking you not apply," said Julie Su, the state's labor secretary.  "We're going to send you a notice about how to access PUA.” 

The EDD says PUA claims should process much faster: 24-48 hours for people who already have a debit card from EDD and between 4-7 days for people who don't. 

“Certainly it seems the processing of these claims is going to be much faster," said Carole Vigne, an attorney with Legal Aid at Work.  "And so I’m hopeful workers will receive their benefits much faster.”

Workers' rights groups like Legal Aid at Work encourage clients to appeal these penalties. 

Vigne's worried about the added stress on an EDD system, already taxed by the massive number of claims. She believes a better soluton would have been to postpone these penalties due to the coronavirus. 

“There is the opportunity here to consider suspending these penalty disqualifications week, in the interim," said Vigne. "Especially given the economic crisis so many people are in.”

EDD said people who are serving penalty weeks should receive a letter in the mail by May 2 about next steps to accessing PUA.