My Unemployment Benefits Are 5 Months Late — and Counting
I first filed in April, and I still don’t know if I’ll ever get paid
The Way We Work Now is a series chronicling how people’s lives and careers have fundamentally changed because of the pandemic.
Jessica Ellis, 38, lives in California and works in the film industry. She spoke with Izzie Ramirez about being stuck in California’s backlog of unemployment insurance claims, which is growing by nearly 10,000 each day.
My husband and I both work in the film industry. He owns a camera rental company, and I freelance as a coverage analyst and screenwriter. It became evident our jobs were going away for a long time when everything shut down in March. Our income dropped from significant to zero in no time, so we started living entirely on our savings.
We’ve been very lucky to be able to put money away for a couple of years. We made our first feature film two years ago, and we’re trying to put the film through distribution, so now we have to make choices: Do we buy the music rights we need or do we have rent for another two months? It’s depressing because your savings are not meant to be survival money. I know so many people are struggling right now. We’re lucky, but it’s also extremely upsetting to just watch that drain.
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Applying for unemployment seemed like the logical thing to do. Initially, there was the pandemic assistance — the $600 a week. If we could get that, we thought, then we’ll still be able to pay our rent. We may be eating into our savings for living costs until work starts up again, but at least we won’t lose our house.
I filed for unemployment in early April and was told I would be getting a case number and a callback within about 10 days. After two weeks, I still hadn’t heard back. I knew the system was massively overloaded, so I tried to be patient. But I emailed them three weeks later, and they sent me an email back saying they didn’t have my claim registered. I had filed it, and I had a confirmation number and everything. When I called the Employment Development Department — where I made my claim — you had to call like 50 times to get through to anyone.
I haven’t done anything wrong in this process — this is a product of California being woefully unprepared for the pandemic.
A claim specialist called me back a couple of weeks later. She told me someone had filed at the same time as I did, and they had incorrectly entered their Social Security number — which was, like, one digit off from mine — and entered mine instead. So my claim didn’t register. She bizarrely told me this person’s full name and home address. I was like, “Please don’t tell me that information; that can’t be legal.” But then she told me this issue was corrected and that the claim would take a few weeks to get through. It seemed taken care of.
Months went by, and nothing happened, so I refiled in July and got a letter saying they couldn’t verify my identity and had a temporary Social Security number attached to it instead of verifying mine. I called again. A claim specialist would call me back, they said. Three weeks went by. Nobody called. I called again and was told, “Okay, we’re going to elevate it to another level since it’s taken so long. You’ll hear back soon.”
I was literally sleeping with the paperwork next to my bed just in case they called first thing in the morning. They never called back. Another three weeks went by. Then last week, I called, and they said, “Well, we can put you in touch with a claims agent, but you’ll have to be on hold, and the mean wait time is about two and a half hours.” So I was like, fine, if this is the only way I’m ever going to get to talk to somebody. The wait was almost five hours.
When I got through to this guy, he yelled at me. He was incredibly hostile and would not let me finish a sentence. He told me my claim had been disqualified for not sending in the ID documents even though I previously had been told to not send them in until a claims agent called. He told me I had been lied to by other agents and said I had to now write a letter appealing the disqualification. He was yelling through all of it. I don’t know why.
I haven’t done anything wrong in this process. This is a product of California being woefully unprepared for the pandemic and for any kind of situation where a large number of its citizens would need help. It’s incredibly demoralizing having filled out everything right the first time and having them make error after error after error, all the way through the period where there was pandemic assistance, which I don’t think I’ll get back paid for. They cannot figure out a way to handle things accurately or with any kind of compassion. It makes the whole situation so much harder.
Since then, I mailed in the appeal, and I contacted my assemblyperson, and I heard back from their office, and they’ve assigned somebody to look into it. But I haven’t heard anything back.
I feel very cursed. There are just such enormous structural flaws in the system. I know for other people, it must be so much harder. I can’t imagine trying to do this while you’re trying to put your kids through distance learning or if there are language barriers and you’re not used to having to deal with this kind of system. I can’t imagine the additional stress.