As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and workplaces throughout the state shutter their doors or cease operations, local elected officials hosted a teleconference town hall Wednesday night to remind residents of what state programs are available for economic relief and provided information on how to apply for various services.
One of the more popular state programs being sought currently by residents throughout the state is unemployment insurance. According to Gov. Gavin Newsom, the seven-day average of new unemployment claims filed this past week alone was 1 million. The typical seven-day average before the coronavirus pandemic was roughly 2,500 claims.
“That should give you an idea if you’re calling and the line is busy or the call gets dropped, that’s what’s happening,” said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson.
Under normal conditions, the state Employment Development Department issues about 80% of first benefit payments within 21 days of receiving a workers application. Given the extraordinary number of claims, as well as an expected increase in claims, officials expect that first payment benefits are going to take much longer, Ms. Jackson said.
George Warner, a fellow with the Wage Protection Program at Legal Aid at Work, a San Francisco-based nonprofit law firm that assists low-income working families in California, advised residents to apply for unemployment insurance even if they are unsure if they’re eligible.
People who are eligible for unemployment benefits includes: those who are out of work or under employed at no fault of their own; those who have enough past wages to qualify for unemployment insurance and those who are able, available and willing to work.
According to Mr. Warner, people who have earned $1,300 in wages in a seasonal quarter in the past year and a half are eligible, as well as some people who earned more than $900 in a seasonal quarter and earned additional wages in another quarter. While some people are considered self-employed contractors or freelance employees, many are still considered eligible.
“Even if you run your own business, under California law the money you’ve been paid is wages,” he said. “Even true independent contractors are encouraged to apply for unemployment benefits because some grants will be passed along to others who don’t normally qualify,” he said.
Those who are able to work legally, have citizenship or permanent residency or employment authorization are also eligible, while those who are undocument or do not have pending immigration petitions with the federal government cannot get unemployment insurance benefits, Mr. Warner said.
Rep. Salud Carbajal explained some of the work the federal government has done in recent weeks to help protect workers during the pandemic. About two weeks ago, an $8.3 billion coronavirus appropriations bill was signed into law, which is focused on providing funding to healthcare infrastructure.
In addition, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, which made FEMA available to help states and local governments for additional funding. The declaration also relaxed some regulations to allow local and state governments to implement measures during the crisis, Mr. Carbajal said.
This past week, the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act” was passed and signed into law, which will help continue funds to support interest-free loans to help pay for unemployment insurance through the end of the calendar year. It also provides partial insurance benefits for workers whose employers have reduced their hours or implemented furlough.
Finally, Mr. Carbajal discussed the $2 trillion stimulus package, which is “on the cusp” of passing the Senate. The House has a companion legislation, known as the “Take Responsibilities for Workers and Families Act.”
“We’re in the process of moving that forward,” he said. “We’ve seemed to have reached an agreement, Republicans and Democrats, and we’re just in the process of hashing out the details. The Senate will likely vote on it and then the House will proceed with a vote on it this week as well. The great news is of the $2 trillion, there’s an estimated $260 billion in that package to help with unemployment insurance to increase the cap that state’s provide for unemployment insurance by $600.”
The package will also waive the waiting period that people have to go through once they start getting benefits and extend the benefits an additional 13 weeks, for a total of 39 weeks, of federally funded unemployment insurance.
“I hope that this final $2 trillion relief package becomes a reality in the next few days. I’m optimistic; I think we’re almost there,” he said.
Jenna Gary, a senior staff attorney with Legal Aid at Work, shared some of the social insurance programs that are available, including paid sick days.
State law requires that all workers have access to at least three paid sick days per year, while some places provide additional sick leave. Starting April 2, employers with fewer than 500 employees will be required to offer an additional two weeks of paid sick days under the Family First Coronavirus Response Act. Employers with fewer than 50 employees may be exempt, Ms. Gary said.
State disability insurance and the state’s family leave program allow wage replacement benefits for those who are unable to work because of their own disability or because they are caring for a family member who suffers from a serious health condition. Employees who are eligible are advised to check their paystubs and look under the deductions section. If “CA SDI” is on your paystub, you are eligible for disability insurance, Ms. Gary said.
Both insurances provide people with 60 to 70% of their normal weekly pay depending on income.
“If you’re unable to work due to having or being exposed to COVID-19, you should apply to state insurance benefits,” she said. “The Employment Development Department that administers these benefits, has already waived the usual one-week waiting period for state disability insurance so you will receive benefits the entire time you are out, and you can receive disability insurance for up to 52 weeks.”
Those who cannot work because they are caring for someone who is ill can apply for up to six weeks of family leave. Up to eight weeks of family leave will be offered starting July 1. Both insurance applications require a medical certification from a doctor, however citizenship and immigration status do not affect eligibility, Ms. Gary said.
Other laws that protect workers include the California Family Rights Act, which offers eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to care for their own or close family members. It includes those who have been exposed or contracted COVID-19. The Family School Partnership Act for employees who work for employers with at least 25 employees offers up to 40 hours of job-protected leave to deal with a school or childcare emergency, including closure by public health directive.
Local attorney James Cordes explained that there have been no changes in the protections offered by state law for workers amid the pandemic. For example, workers have the right to a safe workplace, Cal OSHA is still in effect and an employer cannot draw down an employees’ sick pay for time spent away from work.
“If you have a vacation or PTO plan, the law says you can draw that down, but you don’t have to,” he said. “But you can’t be forced to draw down your sick leave.”
Workers are also entitled to be protected from discrimination, such as being forced to work under unsafe circumstances, and all disability discrimination laws still apply.
“If you have some kind of disability — not acute symptoms of COVID but underlying disability — you can be accommodated by telecommuting or being asked to take unpaid leave,” he said.
In addition, employees continue to be eligible for workers compensation. Those unable to work because they contract the virus can seek workers compensation benefits, including temporary disability and wage replacement, Mr. Cordes said.
For more information about what state programs are available or to learn more about eligibility, visit www.legalaidatwork.org or call 415-404-9093 to schedule an appointment with the workers’ rights clinic. To apply for unemployment, visit www.edd.ca.gov. Applying online can expedite the claims process.