Freelancers struggle to access California’s unemployment benefits during pandemic

On Tuesday, California launched a new portal for freelancers to access pandemic unemployment benefits. But some people are finding it inaccessible, including Cathy Powell, a newly unemployed freelance event planner in LA. 

“When we get logged in, we get knocked out. And then when I go in to try to do whatever I’m supposed to do, it says I exceeded my benefits, but that’s not what I’m trying to sign up for. But I have nobody to help me get to the part that I need to,” she explains. 

“And so I don’t know what to do. My bills are due on Friday. My rent’s due. I don’t know how I’m going to pay my bills. I’m just at a loss right now, and nobody’s willing to help me,” she continues. 

Powell says she’s lost six months of work due to the pandemic. She’s usually busy this season, planning TV/film events and weddings. She just finished working the Super Bowl in February as the coronavirus started spreading. 

Powell has tried calling California’s Employment Development Department (EDD), but she couldn’t get through. KCRW contacted EDD for a comment, but they haven’t responded.

She says she doesn’t think the EDD realizes how many freelancers live in LA. “That's what everyone does here. … They're not really thinking it through. And I just don't understand how this technology is not working for anyone.”

Powell says she doesn’t want to risk going in-person to EDD’s office, and she can’t seek help from her parents, who are on the East Coast  

Her landlord is allowing her to delay rent payments, but she’ll still have to cover it all eventually. “What's the difference if I pay them now, or if I pay them a month from now? It's still money I still owe,” she says.

Despite her frustration, Powell says she’s not giving up on getting her hands on financial help during this pandemic.

So what exactly is happening with unemployment in this state? Are the problems due to flaws in the system, the unprecedented coronavirus outbreak, or both?

Maurice Emsellem, Program Director for the National Employment Law Project, says state unemployment insurance programs are funded by the federal government, and funding has been limited in recent years. 

“All states are having serious challenges getting this program up and running,” Emsellem says. “It gets back to a structural problem which Congress needs to fix, which is the lack of funding for states to administer that program.” 

According to Emsellem, some companies, such as Uber and Lyft, aren’t providing EDD with the information needed to process claims. That forces the department to track down the info from workers themselves, which might be contributing to the backlogs.

California’s EDD has received funding to help handle the unprecedented number of claims. Emsellem says the department has doubled its staff from 2000 to 4000, but new workers require training and other systems that need to be set up. 

California and other states also use COBOL — an old computer programming language that few people know how to use —  to process unemployment claims. 

With all the problems people are facing, that sends a huge wakeup call for states to fix the current infrastructure, Emsellem says. 

For more information on California’s Employment Development Department and its Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, read its FAQ.

— Written by Amy Ta and Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Nihar Patel