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With over 3.5 million unemployment claims in California since mid-March, the state is facing an historic level of payments that need to be made. In fact, the state has paid out approximately $4.5 billion, which is entirely unprecedented. Every state will be stretched thin, but at least for four months, unemployed Californians will see a significant increase in their unemployment payments thanks to the new federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or the “CARES” Act. Section 2104 of the CARES Act provides that those who qualify for unemployment benefits in participating states, which now includes California, will receive their normal weekly benefit amount, plus an additional $600 per week. This additional $600 is a federal supplement, known as Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (“PEUC”). In California, the average weekly unemployment benefit is $340. As a result of the PEUC, the average unemployment benefit check in California will increase to $940. The maximum benefit in California of $450 per week will also increase to $1050. These payments will be made through the Employment Development Department’s (“EDD”) debit cards as usual.
These benefits are not retroactive, and in California, they began on Sunday, April 12, 2020. The usual one-week waiting period for benefits is eliminated under section 2105 of the CARES Act. The additional $600 is only available while the individual would normally be eligible for benefits in that state. In California, this means benefits are available for 26 weeks. However, the additional $600 will cease on July 31, 2020 pursuant to the CARES Act and after that, the employee will receive their normal unemployment payment for the remainder of the 26-week period. Once the 26-week period is over, individuals will receive their normal benefit amount (though not the additional $600 after July 31, 2020) for a 13-week period pursuant to section 2107 of the CARES Act. That benefit and the waiver of the one-week waiting period will expire on December 31, 2020.
These benefits are obviously welcome aid for unemployed Californians. However, there are many issues the State continues to face. First, the CARES Act provides benefits for the first time to contract and furloughed workers and those in the gig economy. This means a whole new category of claims to process. That, coupled with business closures and layoffs, has resulted in a huge increase in claims. The extent of delays for individuals seeking benefits remains to be seen. Many applicants are unable to reach the EDD by phone because the EDD’s phone lines are open just four hours per day. Now that millions are trying to access the EDD, many are calling on the State to expand those hours. However, those administrative costs are paid for by employers through a federal tax, and federal funding was significantly reduced over the past several years due to the boom economy. As a result, EDD staffing was cut in half in California. Thus, half the amount of EDD staff is now struggling to process millions of claims. Federal law requires 90% of claims to be processed within 21 days. California came close to that in February and has appeared to largely keep up with it in March and April thanks to a more streamlined temporary process that has been implemented. This includes waiving some verification requirements until after payments are issued, no longer requiring claimants to recertify their claims every two weeks, and processing more claims through an automated system. However, significant delays have been reported for employees who were misclassified as independent contractors by employers and did not have their wages reported to the EDD, which is doing a wage audit. Many of these claimants have reported waiting six weeks or more before receiving benefits.
Additionally, it appears likely that it will be a long time before life returns to normal (though it will certainly be a new “normal” and not the normal we used to know), and the economy will take even longer to recover. This means months, and likely years of high unemployment in the State. How that unemployment will be paid for in the long run will be a significant challenge. In an effort to address this challenge, California became the first state in the country to take out a federal loan. As of April 30th, California has borrowed $348 million from the federal government and has been approved to borrow up to $10 billion. This is not the first time the state has taken out such a loan. California borrowed $10.7 billion from the federal government during the Great Recession that it just finished paying back in 2018, including hundreds of millions of dollars in interest. As of now, this appears to be California’s best option to stay afloat during what has become the highest period of unemployment since the Great Depression. Regardless, we can appreciate the reprieve and aid offered by the CARES Act.
The FMG Coronavirus Task Team will be conducting a series of webinars on Coronavirus issues on a regular basis. Topics include real estate issues, business interruption losses, and more. Click here to view upcoming webinars.
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