Coronavirus unemployment: “Depression-era” jobless rates loom in California, governor warns

California faces job losses and unemployment rates reminiscent of the Great Depression, Gov. Gavin Newsom warned on Wednesday as he revealed the state has now paid out $10.6 billion in unemployment benefits to workers amid coronavirus-linked business shutdowns.

Despite those payouts, numerous workers who have lost their jobs this year remain unable to reach actual staffers at the state labor agency’s broken call center.

California’s suddenly feeble economy now faces “jaw-dropping” unemployment rates that could be officially revealed this month, Newsom said during a regular briefing to discuss the state’s battle against the deadly bug.

The job losses being tracked by the state Employment Development Department are so severe that they point to unemployment rates that could hover, however briefly, near the unemployment rates during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the jobless levels were in the 25 percent range, according to the governor.

“These are Depression-era numbers,” Newsom said. “It is alarming.”

The EDD says it has established a phone line where jobless workers can reach experts equipped to handle an individual’s unemployment claim. Still, the unresponsive phone center and glitch-hobbled computer system continue to falter, according to many jobless workers.

“It is so insane. I can’t get anybody at the EDD to talk to me about my unemployment claim,” said Claire Alexander, a Mountain View resident and fitness teacher who is out of work. “It seems so cruel to treat people this way who are so desperate.”

The $10.6 billion in payments represents a huge jump — 36 percent higher — compared with an estimate the governor released at his May 4 briefing that California’s EDD had paid $7.8 billion in unemployment benefits since approximately March 15. And it’s up 5 percent, or $500 million, from the $10.1 billion in payments the governor disclosed only on Tuesday.

A major reason for the jump: The state EDD on April 28 began accepting jobless claims from gig workers, self-employed people, and small business owners who suffered job losses or reduced hours as a result of business shutdowns that state and local government agencies imposed to help combat the coronavirus.

The new figures combine the standard unemployment benefit payments with the payments under the new pandemic unemployment assistance program.

Payment volumes also are rising because the additional $600 weekly payment that is being funded by the federal government amid the coronavirus business lockdowns has further swelled the EDD payout totals.

With the $600 in federal money added to the basic state EDD weekly payment, workers who normally might qualify for the maximum state payment of $450 a week would get a maximum combined payment of $1,050 on a weekly basis.

“That all contributes to the higher total benefits paid,” said Loree Levy, a spokesperson for the state EDD.

Word of the new program at a time when the EDD was already struggling to respond to jobless workers seeking the traditional unemployment benefits has dismayed a growing number of Bay Area residents who are suddenly out of work due to the government’s mandates.

“I’m trying to figure out how to pay a mortgage,” said Tim Ryan, a San Jose resident who lost his job on March 30 as a facilities manager with the Children’s Discovery Museum. “Now the EDD has two screwed up programs.”

Unemployed workers say they continue to attempt for several hours at a time, to reach the EDD at as many as four different numbers.

“Thank you for calling,” the EDD recording stated Wednesday at its 800-300-5616 number where expert assistance is available for anyone who manages to reach a real staffer. “We are sorry we are unable to answer your call at this time.” A moment later, the phone was disconnected.


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Author: George Avalos

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