Working Full Time for Unemployment: One Man's Months-Long Struggle for His Benefits

Antonio Rael said he had to call California's Employment Development Department thousands of times before he was able to access the benefits he's entitled to. (Courtesy of Antonio Rael)

Antonio Rael has California’s Employment Development Department (EDD) on speed dial, but he knows the numbers and call-in process by heart anyway.

EDD is one of the state’s largest departments, and oversees all unemployment claims for Californians.

“I even know, like the codes: you press 1, 6, 7, 3 to get through," Rael said. "You put in your Social Security Number, press 1. And ... now they have it where it just hangs up on you. ‘Sorry, we can't help you’ — After you’ve done all that.”

Rael's had plenty of time to internalize the information. Since the pandemic started, he says he’s called EDD around 5,600 times.

He finally got through last week to a representative who could re-certify his application. But, until then, Rael’s was just another of the at least 1 million claims in EDD’s processing backlog, which has left thousands of Californians without the benefits they're entitled to, and has drawn criticism from multiple state officials.

Even though unemployment applicants must confirm they are looking for work (as long as they’re not too sick) to be eligible for benefits, in Rael’s case he had to make a full-time job out of pursuing his payments.

‘Just Starting to Get My Mojo Back’

Rael is 56 and lives in West Hollywood. He normally works as a makeup artist and TV stand-in. In the last five years he’s survived cancer and a heart attack, he said. He’d just gotten back into a routine with work in July 2019.

Antonio Rael during one of many hospital visits in the last few years.
Antonio Rael during one of many hospital visits in the last few years.

“I was starting to get, you know, my mojo back. And, you know, I was trying to get on top of my bills because the cancer had bankrupt me pretty much,” Rael explained.

Then the pandemic hit. Rael applied for regular unemployment benefits, but EDD said he wasn’t eligible.

“I guess because I had cancer, I hadn't put in enough time,” Rael said. “They go 18 months previous, and I was sick. So they said that I didn't have enough hours to qualify.”

Since Rael is an independent contractor, his situation was even more complicated. The CARES Act did make pandemic assistance available to unemployed freelancers starting at the end of April. But, even though he was eligible, it took Rael more than 3,600 calls over the course of 10 weeks to get eight weeks’ worth of pandemic assistance back-paid.

Hurry Up and Wait: Grappling with Re-certification

But just because Rael was approved didn’t mean the trouble with EDD was over. He, along with many other unemployment recipients, hit roadblocks when they tried to re-certify their unemployment — which they’re required to do every two weeks.

Since the first months of the pandemic, EDD has acknowledged that certain qualifying questions on its forms are confusing.

And, according to EDD spokesperson Loree Levy, one of the questions on the re-certification form is still stymieing applicants: “Question number two asks, ‘Was there any reason other than sickness or injury where you couldn't accept a job offer?’ And a lot of people say ‘yes.’ ”

But answering "yes," according to Levy, disqualifies the application in question.

People are likely answering "yes" because they work in fields where opportunity is very limited right now due to the pandemic, and they don’t think there are any jobs to be had. So in their minds, there is another reason: COVID-19.

“You've got to remain able and available to accept that job if it were offered. It may not be out there right now, but if the job were offered, you’d be ready to take that job. And that's what we have to look for and what we're required to look for in order to pay you benefits,” Levy said.

Rael said he only figured out he was supposed to answer "no” after he finally reached a representative who was willing to walk him through the form, question by question. They were on the phone for at least an hour and a half, he said.

When applicants make mistakes on their forms, the forms aren’t processed. And when forms aren’t processed, people don’t get their benefits until the application is updated. That’s what happened to Rael.

EDD: 'Staffing Isn't the Issue'

The one key obstacle to getting his benefits approved and re-certified, according to Rael, was that the EDD workers who had the most direct access to update his application only worked morning hours.

“Those are the only people that can really change your account unless they call you back for an appointment,” he said.

Levy confirmed that the more complicated questions are reserved for certain early shift workers.

“The more experienced representatives we have that require about six months of training, they are the ones that we try to reserve to be able to actually take claims over the phone in the mornings and then they process claims in the afternoon so that we don't get behind on payments.”

For Rael to get re-certified, it took more than 2,000 calls and hours on the phone with seven different representatives. He says he also got some assistance from Assemblymember Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, and encourages others who feel lost in the process to reach out to their representatives if they haven’t.

In his more than 5,000 calls, Rael said the workers he reached outside of the 8 a.m.-noon block and his individually scheduled phone appointments could only communicate basic information that could have just as easily been shared on a taped recording.

EDD is in the process of hiring more than 5,000 new workers. But, according to Levy, the issue isn’t too few workers in the mornings. It’s other people calling in when they could find answers online. She said the agency has a triage system to expedite the efficiency of processing claims, but it’s not working because the lines are tied up.

“I talk to a lot of people who have spent so much time trying to get through on the phone lines,” Levy said. “And when I get their question, it was easily answered just by looking at those top FAQs that we change up every week based on what we're hearing from customers.”

Levy thinks if Californians started taking the time to consult the FAQs instead of tying up the phone lines with simple questions the people who need more specific answers would be able to reach the representatives who can help them more easily.

But Rael disagrees with Levy’s characterization of many of the people calling. A lot of the guidance that was most helpful to Rael he got off social media. And it’s clear to him from the online worker forums that he participates in that people are consulting the digital resources.

“I know people that have called over 10,000 times, and they still don’t have their money,” Rael said.

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A Million More Like Rael

Rael is now figuring out paying off the debts that piled up while he was waiting for EDD to process his claim. Now that he isn’t spending all of his time trying to secure his unemployment, he’s putting together online art classes to post on YouTube and Udemy for kids stuck at home right now.

New reports show the breakdown of the current unemployment claims in EDD’s backlog: 889,000 workers who “may be eligible with additional information” and 239,000 worker with claims “pending EDD resolution.”

Rael’s experience gives ominous context to the likelihood they’ll be processed anytime soon. However, Gov. Gavin Newsom last week announced a strike team tasked with revamping the department’s dated digital presence. He also promised to streamline communications with applicants who’ve yet to get payments.

The Assembly budget subcommittee also recently held an oversight hearing to look at processes at EDD. Assemblymember David Chiu, D-San Francisco, who’s been critical of the agency, said in a statement that he’s glad the governor’s taking notice of the issues, but that the efforts he’s announced will “only scratch the surface of the disaster that is EDD.”

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