Erica Chan knows what it’s like to be jobless. As a filmmaker in Los Angeles, she can go weeks between a project and files for unemployment benefits to get her through. So, when friends lost their jobs in March due to COVID-19 and started asking her how to navigate the state’s confusing unemployment benefits system, she started a Facebook group.
Nearly two months later, the grassroots group, called ‘Unofficial CA unemployment help,’ has become a trusted source of information for its more than 32,000 members. It provides detailed answers on everything from who qualifies for unemployment to how to get someone on the phone at the Employment Development Department — a task that can take hours at the overburdened state agency.
“When you go to our Facebook page,” Chan said, “it’s not just admins and moderators answering questions but other members from their own experience answering questions, as well. You get a more immediate response from the Facebook page than you would from the phone lines.”
As of last week, an estimated 4.3 million Californians had filed for first time unemployment claims since March 12, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom.
In emails to CapRadio and on social media, many who have filed say they waited for hours to speak with EDD representatives to find out the status of their application or learn whether they qualified for a certain benefit.
Ruddy Salazar, who helps Chan administer the Facebook group, said responding to questions can be a full-time job.
“I’ve had days where it’s just nonstop calls and answering messages on the threads and replying in comments,” said Salazar, who also works in the film industry, and like Chan is unemployed. “Sometimes it can be very overwhelming.”
One of the most common questions is how to get EDD on the phone. Salazar offered this advice: “When you call up, you’re going to essentially hear one of two voicemail systems. The first one is going to say the phone lines are overloaded, but here’s a bunch of information and (then) the phone line’s going to disconnect at the end of the message. The second (voicemail system) is actually getting (you) through the first part of the call system.
Salazar recommends pressing 1 on your phone no matter which voicemail system you receive, to speed up the process. It moves you automatically to the end of the message, either disconnecting you or starting the call system prompts.
“If you disconnect, you got the one that was going to disconnect you (anyway)," Salazar said. "If you hear a secondary voicemail, that means you got through the first section and then you can start using the prompts.”
Despite the long hours online, both Chan and Salazar said they get great satisfaction from helping others.
“I think when somebody messages me that they finally got paid, it is such a great feeling,” Chan said. “Because prior to that, you can tell that someone is struggling and they’re going through a lot of pain. … Knowing that somebody is able to go through the process and have what they need to survive, literally, is a good feeling.”
State officials say they know California needs a better system.
“The system for unemployment insurance is not what we would want it to be. It’s not what it should be,” California Labor Secretary Julie Su said earlier this month during a Facebook Live update on the state’s efforts to manage unemployment claims. “I know there’s been a lot of frustration. We’ve seen the need for improvement. The system that we have now is one that we inherited. … It’s the one that we’ve got to use right now.”
In April, Newsom signed an executive order to expand EDD’s call center hours. It launched a new center that operates seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Previously, EDD’s phone lines were staffed for only four hours each morning Monday through Friday.
The new center, however, only answers general and technical inquiries and not more complex questions about individual claims and payments, according to a recent report by the Sacramento Bee. Those inquiries are still only answered on weekdays, for four hours a day.
Earlier in April, the state said it redirected 1,340 employees to boost call center staffing and assist with unemployment claims.
Even with the changes, people are still having trouble with the system.
“I think a lot of the frustration comes from not being able to get information,” Chan noted. “The process is very confusing.”
Asked what advice she’d give those who are seeking benefits, Chan said they should know “they’re not alone.”
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