How to File for Unemployment in California During the Coronavirus Pandemic

A woman looks at the Employment Development Department (EDD) website, where California residents can file for unemployment on March 16, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

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Updated on August 4.

Developments and guidance on how to file for unemployment insurance has been changing rapidly. For additional support, please refer to the official EDD website, the Unofficial CA unemployment help public group on Facebook or refer to this resource created by volunteers

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Source: California Employment Development Department (Courtesy of CalMatters)

Many Californians missing work because of the novel coronavirus can access benefits, including unemployment.

Benefits are not only for people who have been laid off, they also apply to caregivers, those who are quarantined and workers whose hours have been reduced. Additionally, a $2 trillion coronavirus relief package extended unemployment insurance to independent contractors, self-employed and gig economy workers.

What's Changed During COVID-19?

From stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment to tax extensions and relaxed rules, the government — state and federal — is pulling strings everywhere to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

  • Unemployment Insurance eligibility has been expanded, and may include those who have to miss work to care for children. While benefits are typically capped at 26 weeks in a year, two new extensions allow for 13 and then 20 additional weeks.
  • Pandemic Unemployment Assistance is a new federal program that provides unemployment benefits ranging from $167-$450 to those ineligible for typical unemployment insurance, like freelancers, independent contractors, gig workers and people with limited work histories. COVID-19-related job impacts qualify workers for this program.
  • The extra $600 a week, also made available under the federal CARES Act, was automatically added to each week of benefits between March 29 and July 25. Now it’s up to politicians in D.C. and Sacramento to decide if it will be extended.

The reason for the drastic measures is clear. Millions of Californians have been hit hard by the pandemic, particularly workers who are young, female or non-white. One survey showed a third of state residents don’t know how they’ll pay next month’s rent. Another researcher estimated that the rate of household food insecurity has doubled.

Why Does it Take so Long to get Paid?

This summer, the unemployment horror stories started to boil over. As out-of-work Californians slogged through “150 redials” to the unemployment office or long waits for checks docked for previously unknown penalties, the Mercury News reported that just 3.1 million of the more than 5 million California workers who applied for benefits from March-May had received their first checks by early July.

All over the state, public officials demanded answers and an audit of the EDD after delays that in some cases stretched for months. Reports of technical glitches and unexplained delays still abound in newly formed Facebook support groups and news articles, but officials say that common reasons for hold-ups include identity verification, missing information on wages and application errors like incomplete work histories.

There’s also no denying how drastically the workload has increased. The state processed eight times as many applications during the worst week so far of the coronavirus recession — 1,058,325 in the third week of March — than the worst week after the financial crisis, according to a CalMatters analysis.

Initial One-Week Waiting Period Waived in March

Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order on March 12 stating that the California Employment Development Department (EDD) would waive the one-week waiting period for people unemployed or disabled due to the coronavirus.

"We are seeing certainly an unprecedented demand for these benefits, more of a sudden slam of demand, as you can well imagine," said Loree Levy, spokesperson for the EDD. "So for that reason, we have got all hands on deck here at the EDD, trying to do everything we can to streamline the processing of these claims."

EDD staff is working overtime, planning to hire more employees and "trying a number of creative solutions," to help process the influx of claims, according to Levy.

On Friday April 10, Gov. Gavin Newsom directed the unemployment agency to keep call lines open until at least 5 p.m. The EDD is is extending its call center hours from 8 a.m. to noon to 8 a.m. to 5 p.m beginning April 20.

How to File for Unemployment in California

Californians who may be missing work because of the novel coronavirus can apply for benefits through the state's EDD. Specific policies instituted as a result of the coronavirus can be seen here (also available in Spanish). The department is providing workers and caregivers various options to collect payment.

Sick or quarantined Californians who are unable to work as a result of the virus can file a disability insurance claim online.

If you're unable to work because you're taking care of a sick or quarantined relative with COVID-19, you can file a paid family leave claim.

Those who have had reduced hours or have lost their job due to their employer shutting down operations, can file an unemployment insurance claim.

It typically takes three weeks for EDD to process a claim and issue a payment, but Levy said this timeframe is changing on a daily basis. EDD plans to keep Californians informed as the situation evolves.

EDD encourages Californians to check the COVID-19 resources page for developments.

General Eligibility Requirements for California

When filing for unemployment, you must have earned a certain threshold of wages to establish a claim, and be:

  • Totally or partially unemployed
  • Unemployed through no fault of your own
  • Physically able to work
  • Available for work
  • Ready and willing to accept work immediately
  • Actively looking for work

In addition, according to EDD, you must continually meet eligibility requirements — meaning on a weekly basis you must continually prove the points above.

The federal government is allowing new options for states to amend their laws to provide unemployment insurance benefits related to COVID-19. For example, federal law now allows states to pay benefits where:

  • An employer temporarily ceases operations due to COVID-19, preventing employees from coming to work.
  • An individual is quarantined with the expectation of returning to work after the quarantine is over.
  • An individual leaves employment due to a risk of exposure or infection or to care for a family member.
  • In addition, federal law does not require an employee to quit in order to receive benefits due to the impact of COVID-19.

In an effort to answer questions as directly as possible, California Labor Secretary Julie Su has been conducting regular Facebook Live addresses.

Frequently Asked Questions on Unemployment

What benefits are available if I am subject to quarantine, am not ill, and am not found eligible for a Disability Insurance claim?

The EDD encourages people to apply for UI benefits if you are unemployed, which includes reasons such as:

  • Reduced hours due to the quarantine.
  • Separated from your employer during the quarantine.
  • Subject to a quarantine required by a medical professional or state or local health officer.

If you are eligible, the EDD says it processes and issues payments within a few weeks of receiving a claim, though many have reported delays to KQED. In addition, a representative from the department may need to call you to collect more details.

Can I file unemployment if I am self-employed, an independent contractor, or gig worker?

In certain cases, you may be eligible if you meet the following criteria:

  • You chose to contribute to unemployment elective coverage and paid contributions to be considered potentially eligible for benefits.
  • Your past employer made contributions on your behalf over the past five to 18 months.
  • You may have been misclassified as an independent contractor instead of an employee.
  • When filing for your unemployment claim, you will be asked for your last employer.

If you own your business or are self-employed, you should list yourself as your last employer. If you are an independent contractor, you should list yourself as your last employer. If you believe you are misclassified as an independent contractor instead of an employee, you should list the business you contract with as your last employer.

Be sure to include:

  • The employer name, phone number, and address.
  • Type of work performed.
  • Dates worked.
  • Your gross wages and how you were paid (such as hourly or weekly).
  • If you are a gig worker, you should list your gig employer as your last employer.

Can I still qualify for unemployment benefits if my EDD notice shows that I have $0 in benefits available?

A mailed notice showing a $0 benefit may mean the department has no wage records reported by an employer, or they need to verify your identity for the reported wages that belong to you. Employers pay a contribution to the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund for each employee they have on their payroll. This pays for unemployment benefits — workers do not contribute to UI.

If you filed for unemployment and received an award notice with $0 benefits available, it could be due to one of the following:

  • If the department is unable to verify your identity, you will be mailed a request to verify your identity. You have 10 calendar days from the mail date to send us two forms of identity documents from the list of acceptable documents for identity verification. After verifying, the department notes you’ll receive a new notice telling you what wage records show for weekly benefit payments if you meet the other eligibility requirements.
  • If you were misclassified by your employer as an independent contractor instead of an employee or your wage information may have been inadvertently changed when your employer reported your information to the EDD. If you believe the department record is incorrect, follow the instructions on the notice to respond. The department has said they will follow up with individuals as well as the employer for details to make a determination, which may include your W-2, tax form 1099, or a paycheck stub.
  • If you are self-employed or an independent contractor and have not paid contributions to the state Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. As part of the federal CARES Act, the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program helps unemployed Californians who are usually not eligible for regular state unemployment benefits and are unemployed or not providing services for reasons directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including business owners. Visit the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance page (also available in Spanish)  for updates and information on eligibility and when to file.

Would I qualify for benefits if I choose to stay home from work due to underlying health conditions and concerns about exposure to the virus?

You can be eligible for benefits if you choose to stay home. Once you file your claim, the department will contact you if they need more information.

Would I qualify for benefits if my child’s school shuts down and I have to miss work to care for that child who is not ill?

You may be eligible for unemployment benefits. The EDD has said a representatives will determine eligibility on a case-by-case basis by scheduling a phone interview. For example, you may be eligible for unemployment benefits if your employer has temporarily allowed you to work less than full-time hours due to your child care situation.

In such cases, you may be eligible for reduced benefits based on the amount of your weekly earnings, as long as you meet all other eligibility requirements. The department will contact you and your employer for information to determine your eligibility.

Can I collect benefits if my child’s school shuts down and I have to stay home to care for my child if I’m not currently employed or I had to quit work because of my child care needs?

You may be eligible for unemployment benefits. An EDD representatives will determine eligibility on a case-by-case basis by scheduling a phone interview with you.

Are benefits available if my employer reduces my hours or shuts down operations due to impacts of the coronavirus?

If your employer reduced your hours or shut down operations due to COVID-19, you are encouraged to file a claim. Unemployment provides partial wage replacement to workers who lose their job or have their hours reduced, through no fault of their own. Workers who are temporarily unemployed due to COVID-19 and expected to return to work with their employer within a few weeks are not required to actively seek work each week. However, they must remain able, available, and ready to work during their unemployment for each week of benefits claimed and meet all other eligibility criteria.

How much can I collect in benefits with an Unemployment Insurance claim?

Eligible individuals can receive benefits ranging from $40-$450 per week. Depending on the maximum award for your unemployment claim and your weekly benefit amounts paid, the number of weeks you can potentially receive benefit payments ranges from 13 to 26 weeks. Payments could stretch to a longer duration if you perform some work for pay or if you receive other deductible income during the course of a claim, and you receive reduced unemployment benefits as a result during those weeks.

You can use the Unemployment Insurance calculator to help estimate your potential weekly benefit amount.

Can I still collect unemployment benefits if I am able to work remotely from home?

Working your full normal hours remotely would not qualify you for benefits. However, you could collect some benefits if your usual number of work hours are reduced through no fault of your own. The first $25 or 25% of your wages, whichever is the greater amount, is not counted as wages earned and will not be reduced from your weekly benefit amount. For example, if you earned $100 in a week, the department would not count $25 as wages and would only deduct $75 from your weekly benefit amount. For someone who has a weekly benefit amount of $450, they would be paid a reduced amount of $375.

Can I collect disability and unemployment benefits at the same time?

You have the right to apply and file a claim for unemployment and disability benefits at the same time, but you can only collect payments under one benefit program at a time. The EDD encourages people to file a claim under one program based on your circumstances or file under both programs if you are unsure of which program is most appropriate. The department has said they will review the facts and determine eligibility for the appropriate program.

Can I start collecting disability benefits and then transition to an unemployment claim if my workplace operations continues to be impacted with a slowdown or shutdown?

Yes. If your employer shuts down operations or reduces hours for workers while you are on your disability claim, you may apply for unemployment benefits at that time. The EDD said they will help determine the start of your unemployment claim as long as you meet all other eligibility requirements.

Can I start collecting unemployment benefits because I am laid off or have had my work hours reduced, and then switch to a disability claim if I become sick?

Yes. If you become sick while you are out of work, you can apply for a disability claim, which can provide a higher benefit amount if you’re eligible. A medical certification is required to substantiate your illness. If you are approved for a Disability Insurance claim, your unemployment claim will be suspended. If you recover but remain unemployed, you may then return to the remainder of your benefits as long as you remain out of work and are otherwise eligible. You will need to reapply to reopen your unemployment claim.

Can I start collecting unemployment benefits because I am laid off or have had my work hours reduced, and then switch to a Paid Family Leave claim if I have to care for a family member who is sick?

Yes. If you have a family member who becomes sick while you are out of work, you can apply for a Paid Family Leave claim which can provide a higher benefit amount. A medical certification is required to prove your family member’s illness. If you are approved for a Paid Family Leave claim, your Unemployment Insurance (UI) claim will be suspended. If you complete your Paid Family Leave claim and remain unemployed, you may then return to the remainder of your unemployment benefits as long as you are out of work and eligible. You will need to reapply to reopen your unemployment claim.

For those in need of immediate relief, a group of companies and foundations have launched OnwardCA — an initiative to get California workers essential services, and back to work as soon as possible. Here you can search for food assistance, shelter, childcare in addition to training and jobs.


Federal Assistance

Trump signed a $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill into law on March 27, which includes $260 billion to ramp up the unemployment insurance program. The package raises the weekly benefit by $600 and expands coverage to four months. This includes previously ineligible groups, such as those who are self-employed, freelancers or work in the gig economy.

What You Need to Know About Paying Rent

The stimulus package also gives American citizens a payment of $1,200 — or less, depending on income — and potentially $500 for every child in a family. Direct deposit payments began going out to some Americans in mid-April, and the IRS released an online tool where you can check on the status of your stimulus check.

On March 18, Trump also signed an emergency funding bill that will extend unemployment benefits and give self-employed workers a tax credit equal to qualified sick leave. The bill will also:

  • Provide up to three months of paid family and medical leave.
  • Extend unemployment insurance to furloughed workers. Beef up food assistance for needy families, including seniors, students and food banks.
  • Increase Medicaid funding for local, state, tribal and territorial governments and health systems, to help cover response to the emergency.

Additional Sources of Financial Support

Emergency Funds for Freelancers, Creatives Losing Income During Coronavirus is a list of resources compiled by KQED Arts focusing on freelancers and creatives.

Corporations such as Facebook have funding available for small businesses and UberEats has waived deliver fees for independent restaurants.

Support in San Francisco

The city of San Francisco has launched a Give2SF fund with a $1.5 million contribution from Salesforce to “help protect the health of San Francisco and support the most vulnerable, including individuals, families, and local businesses." Additional resources for workers in San Francisco can be found here. There is also a small business resiliency fund for the city of San Francisco.

Santa Clara County Assistance

The Santa Clara County homelessness prevention system has temporary financial assistance available to help low-income residents of Santa Clara County who have lost income and are unable to pay rent as a result of COVID-related impacts.

Open Health Insurance Enrollment

If you've lost a job and no longer have health insurance, Covered California has opened a special enrollment period which means you can still get health insurance.

Additional reporting by Lauren Hepler and Stephen Council with CalMatters.