Still Waiting: Six Months Later, Millions Haven’t Been Paid Unemployment Benefits

Photo to accompany story about still waiting to receive unemployment benefits.
It’s been nearly six months since Jasmine Harris lost her job when her state shut down because of COVID-19. She says she still hasn’t received her full unemployment pay, and has had great difficulty getting answers from California’s unemployment office. (Photo by Mercedes Barba)

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Jasmine Harris lost her job at an L.A.-based production company in late March due to the statewide shutdown. 

It took nearly six months to receive meaningful unemployment benefits—and she’s still waiting for her full pay.

Unfortunately, Harris’ story isn’t unique. 

More than 57 million people have filed for unemployment benefits since March, overwhelming state unemployment systems, and millions are still waiting to be paid, according to a Bloomberg analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

While the number of initial jobless claims has been trending downward, it’s still over 800,000 people a week, which is well above the previous pre-pandemic weekly record.

Harris has stopped paying her bills, including rent and utilities, and used what little money she had just to get by. While California has protections in place against utility shutoffs and the federal eviction moratorium lasts through the end of the year, Harris says she knows she’s going to have to pay it all back eventually.

The stress and feelings of helplessness can be overpowering. “I don’t leave the house because I have nothing. That takes a toll on my mental and emotional state,” says Harris, 30. At this point, she says the benefits she’s received won’t even cover her past-due rent, not to mention her other delinquent bills. Yet she says months of calling the California Employment Development Department (EDD) have yielded few results.

Pro Tip

If you’re having trouble getting unemployment benefits, contact your state senator, representative, or even governor. They could help move things along.

With no help in sight, people like Harris are turning to elected officials, lawyers, and even social media for help. Harris is part of the Unofficial California Unemployment Help Facebook group, which has drawn more than 56,000 members since it was started in March. 

When asked via email what is causing the delays, the California EDD cited “unprecedented” demand for unemployment benefits. The EDD says it has processed 11.9 million combined claims for the regular unemployment insurance program, as well as the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

Many states operate unemployment systems that are sorely out of date or didn’t have the staff to handle this deluge of applications. The states are catching up, but if there is anything wrong with your application, you could get lost in the mix, says Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the progressive, independent think tank The Century Foundation

Mikaelah Pagan waited four months after losing her food service job before she received unemployment benefits. (Provided photo)

If your application gets flagged and your state’s unemployment agency lacks the resources to resolve your issue, you could get stuck, says Stettner, who has over 20 years of experience as an unemployment insurance policy advocate.

This is what happened to Mikaelah Pagan, who found her way to the same Facebook group as Harris. She says she filed for unemployment with the EDD the day she lost her food service job and waited four months to receive benefits. 

Pagan, 23, says she was eventually approved for payment. However, she was unable to access her benefits because the EDD debit card she received in the mail didn’t have her name, which she says was filled out correctly on her application. Somehow, she says the name, birthdate, and gender listed on her account had gotten switched to someone else’s, even though her Social Security number and address were still correct. Her case was put under investigation to  verify her identity, causing the delay.

What Can You Do to Ensure You’re Getting What You’re Owed?

The huge influx of recent unemployment claims were partly caused by the number of people who qualify under this year’s unique circumstances but who wouldn’t under normal circumstances.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) extends unemployment benefits to many who didn’t previously qualify. Independent contractors, freelancers, gig workers, and the self-employed may be eligible for payments through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, established by the CARES Act. Since these types of workers don’t pay state unemployment insurance taxes and they don’t have employers who pay into the unemployment system, they aren’t normally eligible for unemployment benefits.

But how you apply for PUA benefits isn’t the same across the board. Different states have different procedures and rules on who qualifies for benefits, says Daniel Kalish, managing partner at the national employment law firm HKM Employment Attorneys. The stimulus package included language saying states should be more lenient with who gets extra benefits, but didn’t spell out exactly how, says Kalish. 

Because there is so much confusion right now surrounding qualification, Kalish has this straightforward advice: If you have had any reduction of your take-home compensation at all, you should apply for unemployment benefits, even if you’re unsure whether you qualify. As long as you are honest in your application, there is no negative repercussion for applying. All they can say is no, he says.

Applying for unemployment insurance is only the beginning of the journey, and it could be a long slog. To avoid unnecessary setbacks, double check that you’ve filed everything correctly. But there can still be delays and other issues. 

While there’s no guaranteed way to expedite your unemployment insurance application, you can take steps to help it move along. Based on the experience of Pagan and Harris, you might need to be relentless in your pursuit of benefits you are owed. 

Join an Unemployment Facebook Group for Your State

Stettner recommends connecting with other people who have already received unemployment benefits, and are familiar with the process. 

The group Harris and Pagan turned to was started by Erica Chan as an online community resource for people navigating California’s unemployment system. Chan, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker, says she had experience filing for unemployment benefits, and figured a Facebook group might help to connect others with similarly valuable experience with those filing in need of help. The group has become a platform for finding answers to common issues like identity verification, and how to contact the EDD.

Hundreds of thousands of people across the country are turning to such Facebook groups for help navigating state unemployment systems. While a Facebook group can be a good starting point, be sure to verify the advice you find in these groups, as personal experiences aren’t always a good substitute for expert guidance.

The experts we spoke with agreed that getting someone from your state’s unemployment office on the phone is your best option for getting a direct response, but even that can be hit or miss. While people have occasionally been able to reach someone at the unemployment office who is helpful, that usually isn’t the case, Kalish says. 

Pro Tip

If you have had any reduction of your take-home compensation at all, you should apply for unemployment benefits, says Daniel Kalish, managing partner at the national employment law firm HKM Employment Attorneys.

The most common question asked on the Facebook group is how to contact somebody at EDD, Chan says. The EDD has multiple phone numbers for unemployment filing and support. One of the numbers is a general/technical support number, which hasn’t been as helpful as a separate claim support phone number, Chan says. 

Thanks to guidance she got from a member of the Facebook group, Harris eventually got through to someone by calling the claim support phone number. After talking to an EDD representative on the phone, Harris says she eventually received one payment in late May, though it would be another four months before she received additional benefits. 

Contact Your State Representative or Senator

Jasmine Harris

As a last ditch effort, Harris reached out to her state senator’s office, and says she was told they would send an inquiry on her behalf. About two weeks later, in late September, Harris received back pay totaling $10,000. Harris believes she is still owed additional benefits, and is unclear on how to ensure continued benefits.

Pagan has reason to agree that, for anyone who is having trouble getting their unemployment benefits, contacting a state senator or other state elected official is probably the best bet. She credits this approach with helping get her issue resolved. 

Unemployment benefits are handled by the state, so contacting your state-level elected officials can help get the ball rolling. They can sometimes get an answer faster than the unemployment office itself, Stettner says. They are doing case work on behalf of their constituents, but they’re also overwhelmed, he says. He even recommends reaching out to your state governor’s office. 

Should You Reach Out to an Unemployment Lawyer?

In general, it doesn’t make sense to hire a lawyer right out of the gate. If you receive a letter saying your claim has been denied or that you are not eligible for benefits that you think is wrong, that’s when you should look into legal services, Stettner says.

Unfortunately, getting legal representation can be difficult or not worth the cost of hiring a lawyer. A lot of states limit the fees an attorney can charge for unemployment representation, Kalish says. That prevents attorneys from gouging clients who are desperate and in need, he says. But in states where such caps are extremely low, it can be hard to find legal representation for unemployment cases. On the other hand, legal representation may be too expensive in states with no restrictions.

You might be able to find public interest groups that provide pro bono unemployment legal counseling. For example, the Unemployment Law Project provides free legal advice and representation for unemployment cases in Washington state. But these organizations are so overwhelmed they are likely only able to help a small fraction of people in need. It’s really tricky to provide a large number of people with good unemployment advice, Kalish says.

Bottom Line

Across the country, state unemployment departments are overwhelmed by the huge increase in applications for benefits. This has led to many people experiencing long delays in getting what they are owed.

Many people in this situation are finding it difficult to make progress, but there are some things you can do. The first is to try to get someone on the phone. Even if it takes dozens or hundreds of phone calls, it is likely to yield better results than an email or online messaging portal. If that doesn’t work, then reach out to your state elected officials. Many state senators’ and governors’ offices are doing casework for constituents and may be able to move things along for you.

As a last resort, you could look into getting a lawyer, but this can be prohibitively expensive. So it usually only makes sense if you feel you were unjustly denied benefits. If you need an unemployment lawyer, you may be able to find free advice or representation with a non-profit. However, these organizations are most likely overwhelmed with requests as well.