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California independent contractors struggle for unemployment help amid coronavirus

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Two weeks after other states started sending checks, California on Tuesday began accepting unemployment benefit claims from millions of independent contractors, gig workers and the self-employed, but many said ongoing glitches on the state’s overtaxed website prevented them from filing applications.

The reports of technical issues follow weeks of similar complaints from other Californians left jobless by the COVID-19 pandemic. They said they were stymied by error messages and clogged phone lines that kept them from completing applications.

Although some people said they were able to file a claim Tuesday, many others said they were frustrated that the online portal malfunctioned as a flood of people tried to log on, preventing them from signing up for financial help.

“It’s a complete mess,” said Tim Curtis, who is self-employed and provides technical services to recording studios.

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He was able to file an application after several attempts but is not sure it will be accepted.

“The website keeps crashing, forcing you to start filling out the entire form all over again, usually all the way from logging in,” he said. “There is no phone support available.”

Many callers to a new phone line operated by the state Employment Development Department, which processes unemployment insurance applications, were greeted with a recorded message that said the agency was receiving more calls than it could handle and urging people to use its UI Online portal.

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For more than a week, callers have heard the message, which also warns that the call will be disconnected.

On Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom said officials are making it a top priority to resolve problems with the application process at the EDD, and he expects the claims system to stabilize in the next few days.

“We’ve got to figure this out,” Newsom said during his daily briefing on coronavirus issues, noting that the agency was “dealing with an unprecedented amount of call volume.”

We will continue to do everything in our power to improve on that experience in these historic and unprecedented times,” Newsom said.

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To help jobless people apply on the first day, the EDD created a digital guide to applying for unemployment benefits that consolidates basic information about the process and provides customers with a way to sign on to UI Online.

“New questions have been programmed into the system to collect the necessary details for processing [Pandemic Unemployment Assistance] claims,” said Loree Levy, a spokeswoman for EDD.

Levy declined to respond to questions about those who said they were blocked from filing claims because of malfunctions on the website.

Documentary filmmaker Alana Maiello said she made several attempts Tuesday to file a claim, but the program repeatedly froze, preventing her from filing.

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“Families who are already vulnerable to the coronavirus crisis are less likely to get the government aid they need when the government websites don’t even work,” Maiello said.

Several others vented their frustration on social media, posting screen shots showing error messages.

At least 2.8 million Californians were freelancers and gig economy workers as of 2016, according to a study conducted through the Internal Revenue Service.

EDD officials said they expect new applications from independent contractors and the self-employed to “rival” the 3.2 million unemployment claims filed in the last month.

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California was late to begin accepting applications from independent contractors. More than a dozen other states started making payments to independent contractors and the unemployed in recent weeks.

Texas, Louisiana and Rhode Island all sent the first payments more than two weeks ago, on April 13, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

For workers including Lyft driver Edan Alva of Alameda, the state has taken too long to provide the financial assistance approved by Congress last month, leaving them struggling to pay living expenses such as rent, food and medical care.

“This whole situation is ridiculous and should have been dealt with a long time ago,” said Alva, 49, who says he lost all income from his Lyft gig. “It would have been devastating if not for the fact that family and friends provided me essentially a handout that has allowed me to survive.”

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Alva is getting partial benefits, for two months he worked away from Lyft, but is still trying to get additional unemployment based on income lost when he halted driving for the ride-sharing company.

California officials said last week that they needed more time to develop “system programming, forms, processes and procedures,” including a revamp of the state’s antiquated computer systems to handle the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program that was part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, signed March 27 by President Trump.

Newsom said the new automated system will allow PUA claims to be processed much faster than the 21 days taken for normal unemployment insurance claims.

“I am confident we will be able to turn around those checks within 24 to 48 hours,” Newsom said.

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The EDD did not provide unemployment benefits to independent contractors, gig workers and the self-employed before the pandemic, but a new assistance program was implemented when Congress approved the CARES Act.

The new program, which also is available to Californians who have limited work history, will provide up to 39 weeks of benefits, starting at $167 per week, retroactive to unemployment that began Feb. 2.

On top of normal unemployment benefits, jobless people may receive an additional $600 per week going back to March 29 and until July 25 as part of the CARES Act.

Eligibility for the program includes those diagnosed with COVID-19 or experiencing symptoms; primary caregivers for children unable to attend school; people who quit a job as a direct result of COVID-19; and those whose place of employment is closed because of the pandemic.

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Curtis, a Los Angeles resident, said his independent contract work with music recording studios has dried up.

“At this point, every studio that I work with is currently closed,” he said.

Curtis said he applied for unemployment assistance three weeks ago and was denied, and had a difficult time getting timely information from the EDD on how he can get help under the new program for independent contractors.

“The worst part is the complete lack of communication,” Curtis said. “It feels dehumanizing. To be treated like you don’t even deserve to be informed as to what’s happening is a real insult, and it crushes your self-esteem and confidence.”


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