As the coronavirus resurfaces 10 months after a devastating pandemic, many unemployed Californians have exhausted their options and cling to what little government support remains. Once padded with a $600 more per week of the federal coronavirus relief bill, many of the state’s unemployed say their benefits are just enough to survive — if they can get them.
Flooded with more than 15 million applications since March, the Department of Employment Development is struggling to keep up. At the end of last month, the agency’s backlog of unresolved claims stood at 890,000.
In his last blunder, EDD temporarily suspended more than 300,000 of the Bank of America debit cards it issued to applicants due to suspected fraud. But the aggressive anti-fraud measure caught thousands of innocent claimants in the crossfire, wiping out their only lifeline.
Mistakes and meager state benefits have led to the financial ruin of thousands of people across the state and forced tough decisions about which bills to waive or which meals to skip. This is how three residents are supported by decreasing benefits.
Hold in a Costco parking lot
Out of work and kicked out by her landlord, Leigh Holguin used her unemployment benefits to buy a new home: a 1996 Chevrolet Swinger RV. Holguin, 50, her boyfriend Adam Rapp, 41, and their puppy pit -bull have been living in their vehicle in Eureka since April.
A freelance concierge, Holguin lost her job as soon as the pandemic hit. So did Rapp, who tended lawns and collected and sold scrap metal for recycling.
The two filed for unemployment on the same day in March, but Rapp has yet to see a dime.
His request is lost somewhere in the state agency’s huge backlog. Holguin saw its monthly benefits drop to $800 when the $600 weekly federal relief program expired in July.
Holguin was saving up to secure a spot at a local trailer park where they could hook up the RV to electricity and access running water. Instead, she remained flustered when her EDD-issued debit card declined twice at the pump early last month.
Swept away by Sacramento’s aggressive anti-fraud efforts, Holguin’s bank account had been suspended. It took a week of waiting on the phone to reach the agency. When she was finally successful, a representative told her she needed to call Bank of America. A hot potato game ensued.
“When you call, it’s ‘Oh, it’s EDD’ or ‘Oh, it’s Bank of America,’ and you go back and forth,” Hoguin said. “It’s frustrating.”
When the state finally unblocked its card, its $800 lifeline for October was gone. Tired of investing hours on the phone, she gave up getting that money back.
Then their motorhome broke down, leaving the couple stranded in a Costco parking lot. A mechanic gave him a quote of $3,500 for the repair. The money she doesn’t have.
The police harass the couple to move the motorhome off the lot. She’s afraid they’ll have her house towed.
“We are sinking slowly,” Holguin said. “It’s like we’re in a boat with a hole and we use a teaspoon to bail out the water.”
Living in Los Angeles on $58 a week
Reidun Saxerud, 33, has felt the pinch since she moved solo to Los Angeles from Minnesota eight years ago – jumping from job to job and earning just enough to keep her head out of it. ‘water.
Saxerud finally made progress earlier this year, and then came the coronavirus. The pandemic took away the raise she got three weeks earlier as an administrative assistant at a talent agency.
Jobless, she filed for unemployment less than a week after Governor Gavin Newsom ordered the state to shut down in March. His weekly price stood at $58, but real support came when the federal stimulus package added a $600 weekly boost to his account in late April.
The aide filled her bank account with more money than she had seen in years and freed her to leave a hostile living situation and move into a townhouse with new roommates in May.
Backed by a PPP loan, the talent agency rehired Saxerud in May. But as she expected, her return was short-lived. At the end of June, she was again unemployed. She only earned half of what she would have earned had she been unemployed for those six weeks.
Saxerud has since survived on $58 in weekly unemployment benefits and whatever unemployment money she was able to put away when the stimulus ended in late July. Artist and writer, she is helped by the few hundred dollars a month that she can withdraw from art commissions.
October was the first month she was unable to pay her $550 rent in full.
Three weeks ago, she started a seasonal job as a personal assistant in a gift shop near her home. If she can’t do her new job, she’ll have to start surviving again on $58 a week.
Having lived each week in California on a tight budget, Saxerud said she felt insensitive to her current situation. Except this time, she hardly feels alone in her struggle. She is eager to see what will happen to a country she believes is at its tipping point.
“I have felt for a long time, about 10 years now, that we are on the brink of a massive revolution and maybe now is the time,” Saxerud said. “So I’m going to bide my time and take care of myself every day like I know how to, because I know something big is coming.”
Back on the streets after unemployment account freeze
Ron Adams, 41, doesn’t sleep most nights. He woke up with too many backpacks missing.
Adams wanders the streets of Riverside full of indignation. Two months ago, he had a home for the first time in nearly a year. Three weeks and a frozen bank account later, he finds himself on the street again.
Adams became homeless a year ago when a breakup with his ex-girlfriend left him homeless. Alternating between hotel rooms and sleeping on the streets, he quickly emptied his savings as he struggled to find work as a handyman.
For Adams, the federal coronavirus relief bill represented a roof over his head. His weekly unemployment benefits were enough for him to chain regular stays in hotels for most of the summer and to reimburse friends who helped him through the winter.
In September, he moved into a small Riverside house he found on Craigslist. His monthly benefit of $1,000 gave him just enough to cover $900 in rent. Then EDD froze his debit card. Unable to pay October’s rent, her landlord asked her to leave.
A month of fruitless back and forth with EDD sapped Adams’ hope. The latest from the agency, he will have to wait six weeks for his identity card to be verified.
Local shelters never have room for him, he says. He relies on the generosity of his ex-girlfriend to stay fed. Some weekends, he manages to convince her to book him a hotel room. It reimburses it as soon as EDD resolves its complaint.
This article is part of California Divisiona collaboration between newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media company explaining California policies and politics.