Navigating unemployment and rent issues under COVID-19

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On May 7, KCRW hosted an event on what renters and homeowners can do about their financial stresses. Photo credit: KCRW.

The latest jobs report finds almost 15% of the U.S. population is out of work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of Californians are on unemployment, and the state has paid out $10 billion in claims, according to Governor Gavin Newsom. But navigating the state's Employment Development Department (EDD) is creating frustration for many  Californians who fear they may not be able to pay rent.

In KCRW’S “Ask an Expert” series, Greater LA's Steve Chiotakis hosted Matthew DeCarolis, a staff attorney with Bet Tzedek’s Employment Rights Project; and Cynthia Chagolla, who is leading the charge on Bet Tzedek's eviction defense work. Chagolla also heads Bet Tzedek's Preventing and Ending Homelessness Project. 

Paying rent is an immediate concern for many Californians, and Chagolla is urging renters to do some research.

"Look at whatever emergency ordinance or protection your city has passed. ... If you live in the City of Los Angeles, your protections may be different than in West Hollywood,” he says. “Most cities have a one-year repayment plan." 

If you are considering a rent strike, Chagolla stresses the importance of connecting to legal services and a tenants union in order to have the support of advocates and communities. 

Renters aren't the only ones facing financial distress. For homeowners who are facing a loss of rental income, Chagolla suggests working with the tenant so they can obtain rental assistance. She says, "Surprisingly, pre-COVID-19 we had numerous cases of landlords refusing to accept rental assistance or third party checks from foundations and churches."  

Trying to find state and federal help is a tough process. EDD, like all of its counterpart agencies, have been slammed. Thirty million people are newly unemployed and have filed for benefits. 

The process is confusing for many, but Matthew DeCarolis says once you are approved, EDD will send you an approval letter, then a debit card with your benefits loaded onto it. He notes the entire process takes about three weeks, with the debit cards tending to arrive a week after the approval letter. If you haven't received your card and are trying to get through to the agency, DeCarolis suggests calling when the lines open at 8 a.m. He says if you have internet access, go the EDD site and click on “ASK EDD.” You may get an answer much more quickly.  

Another option may be Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). It's a new federal program for people who have already used up their unemployment benefits or who do not qualify for unemployment benefits. Submissions are taken online.

According to DeCarolis, Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) is slated to expire at the end of July. PUC is the extra $600/week currently being added to both Unemployment Insurance benefits and PUA payments. He's urging residents to reach out to their federal representatives to push for an extension of the program.

Resources:

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act 

Bet Tzedek resources page 

Benefits summary for workers impacted by COVID-19 

Ask EDD

EDD: COVID FAQs on various programs 

EDD’s unemployment benefits calculator 

EDD FAQs on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance  

EDD FAQs for reporting work and wages 

Step-by-step guide for adding wages to EDD’s records  

Resources for gig workers and other misclassified workers 

Guide for Immigrant Californians (includes information in numerous languages) 

Rapid Response Housing Clinic

COVID Protection for Tenants

NY Times: Where Are Your Jobless Benefits?

NY Times: How to Apply for Unemployment Benefits in California

Legal Aid at Work (nonprofit)

Healthy LA website campaign for rent cancellation 

Emergency Renters Assistance Fund 

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Host:
Steve Chiotakis