More than $6 billion in unemployment benefits have been distributed to millions of Californians impacted by the coronavirus crisis since mid-March, including over $1 billion on Tuesday alone, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom.
On that same day, the state also experienced a dramatic but anticipated spike in the number of people who filed for benefits as the state’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program began accepting applications, the governor said Wednesday.
The PUA is geared toward people who have been impacted by COVID-19 and don’t typically qualify for unemployment insurance. That includes the self-employed, independent contractors and gig economy workers, among others.
Of the roughly 235,000 that filed for jobless benefits, about 190,000 individuals applied for PUA, Newsom said.
The governor acknowledged the difficulty and struggles that many faced in accessing the system online and in person due to the sheer number of applicants.
“We are getting our arms around this, again, unprecedented volume,” he said. “You went from 2,500 applications a day just a few months ago, all in, just yesterday, 235,000 applications. Not an excuse, we have to meet the moment.”
Those eligible for the program will get a minimum of $167 per week to start, with higher amounts available to anyone who can substantiate a larger income, according to California Labor Secretary Julie Su. Payments can be made retroactively.
On top of that, they will qualify for $600 in weekly federal benefits from the CARES Act from March 29 to July 25, Su said.
The PUA benefits will be paid within 24 to 48 hours, as opposed to the typical 21 days it takes to disburse regular unemployment insurance. They will last for 39 weeks and are set to expire at the end of the year, although it’s unclear if an extension could possibly be granted.
Since March 12, approximately 3.7 million Californians have filed jobless claims as nonessential businesses were forced to close temporarily due to stay-at-home restrictions issued to combat the ongoing threat posed by the novel coronavirus.
California has distributed more than $6 billion in claims since the pandemic hit, $1.2 billion of which came Tuesday.
“In the last four weeks since the coronavirus pandemic hit, California has received and processed more applications than in all of 2019,” Su said Tuesday.
Plagued by issues caused by record demand, California recently expanded the Employment Development Department’s call center hours to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and increased staffing.
But the state is also working to provide more support to make the process easier for PUA applicants, including utilizing texting technology and chatbots, according to Newsom.
It’s “all part of loosening the capacity and our ability to deliver on your expectations and what you deserve as people that are fearful about their economics and fearful about their ability to just buy food, pay for rent, support their children, support their families,” he said.
The governor hasn’t given a specific timeframe for when statewide coronavirus restrictions will be lifted and, presumably, people will be allowed back to work. However, on Tuesday he did outline a gradual, four-stage approach for relaxing the stay-at-home order.
Currently, California is in the first stage of working toward reopening, whereby the state ensures essential businesses are kept as safe as possible as officials work to increase capacity on testing and contract tracing.
In the coming weeks, Newsom expects California to enter stage two — that’s where some nonessential businesses will be allowed to open again — with the caveat that they modify operations to curb the virus’ spread.
An announcement about transitioning from the first to the second stage could come within a week or two, but only if Californians continue to stay at home and practice socially distancing, according to the governor.
“We can undo our progress in a very short period of time. What’s taken us two months to produce, in terms of getting stable numbers could be unwound in just a period of a week or two,” he said Wednesday. “Why put ourselves in that position when we are just a week or two away from significant modifications in our stay-at-home order?”