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California Finally Launches Unemployment Benefits Program For Independent Contractors, Self-Employed

Andrew Nixon/CapRadio
California Department of Employment Development

After weeks of questions and mounting frustration, California launched a new program on Tuesday that allows non-traditional workers who have lost income due to COVID-19 to apply for unemployment benefits through federal relief money.

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, or PUA, gives the state’s millions of independent contractors — including gig economy workers, freelancers, business owners, the self-employed and part-time workers — their first chance at financial help since Congress approved the funds through the CARES Act more than a month ago.

The program offers $767 per week to those who lost their job or had income reduced from March 29 to July 25 due to the coronavirus. A smaller portion of the benefit, $167, is retroactive to Feb. 2 and extends through December for each week a recipient is unemployed due to the virus.

For about six weeks, workers in these non-traditional sectors — such as Uber and Lyft drivers and self-employed musicians and artists — have watched customers stay home, gigs get cancelled and incomes vanish.

On Tuesday, they watched as the state Employment Development Department finally offered an avenue for relief, though with mixed results. While many had been waiting for April 28 to finally apply, the anticipated surge of applicants left some complaining about long wait times on social media.

“Unfortunately, it’s not going great,” Jennifer Shaw, a Sacramento-based employment law attorney said of the launch, noting that some of her clients also reported website crashes. “It’s not the fault of EDD. A lot of them are working from home. There are a lot of limitations. … The system is being taxed.”

Shaw said the PUA is the first unemployment program designed for non-traditional workers in California’s history. Typically, this part of the workforce doesn’t receive any jobless benefits. No government agencies, she added, were prepared or could have been prepared for the overwhelming and immediate economic fallout from the coronavirus.

In a written statement, a spokesperson for the agency said: “The EDD’s Unemployment Insurance processing system has not crashed but has been under some strain due to a high volume of applications being submitted all at once. EDD is working to steadily increase its claims processing capacity, and recommends claimants reattempt to file their claim online a little later if they experience any issues applying.”

The spokesperson did not have an estimate for how many people applied for the new benefits on Tuesday.

Referring to the EDD’s efforts to put the new program in place, Shaw said “It’s a little like turning the Queen Mary on a dime.”

Earlier this month, California Labor Secretary Julie Su told CapRadio the state waited several weeks to launch the program to ensure it was tested and could deliver checks to people within one to two days of receiving their application.

In a written statement on Tuesday, EDD Director Sharon Hilliard acknowledged some of the economic anxiety experienced by so many Californians.

“We know there are a lot of workers in the state who are in business for themselves and have been greatly struggling through this historic pandemic,” Hilliard said. “We have worked to get this new program in place quickly to support working Californians, the self-employed, their families, and their communities.”

Applicants can learn more about the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program by reviewing the newly updated PUA Frequently Asked Questions on the EDD website.

Copyright 2020 CapRadio