The last check arrived a few days before Christmas.
That was how Kimmy Alvarez, 53, was making it all work: unemployment insurance, in the form of deposits from California’s Employment Development Department (EDD), was helping Alvarez pay her rent, make her car payment, buy groceries, and support her 18-year-old daughter.
Alvarez, a Napa resident, had been laid off from her job at a sandwich shop in St. Helena in the spring; since then, she’d been relying exclusively on EDD checks to help support her modest lifestyle.
Then the payments stopped.
It wasn’t without notice; Alvarez received a message from the EDD explaining that her claim had been suspended. But all she would have to do to renew the claim, the message went on, was verify her identity through ID.me, the online platform used by the agency. Alvarez could do so by simply uploading a photo of her driver’s license and a “selfie” of herself to prove she was who she’d said she was.
It took some fiddling with the technology, but Alvarez says she finally figured out how to upload a copy of her ID. Eventually, she got a notification confirming she’d been verified.
But then a week passed. Another week; another after that. Now, almost six weeks later, Alvarez has heard nothing from the EDD and has received no money. (She’d previously been receiving $450 weekly, according to Alvarez.)
And where the checks were once a lifetime, their absence has been devastating for Alvarez, who hasn’t been able to pay her $1,200 monthly rent or make her car payment this month. She’s been going to a local food bank to support herself, her daughter and her partner, and eating at friends’ houses when those supplies run out.
“I have nothing,” she said.
Alvarez’s claim is not the only one to have been suspended. The EDD has processed 19.5 million claims and paid out more than $114 billion since the pandemic began; in January, it announced it had identified 3.5 million “potentially fraudulent” existing claims, the Los Angeles Times reported. It suspended 1.4 million claims and closed almost 2 million more.
The agency announced during a media call Jan. 25 that it has paid more than $11 billion – practically 10% of the total it has paid out in claims since March – to claims ultimately deemed fraudulent. The EDD has not published data regarding subsequently verified claims or commented on recent response wait times.
Without support, paying the price
For Napa resident Julie Burdick, 61, there was no warning at all: only a note in her online EDD portal one morning alerting her that she’d exhausted available benefits. It’s a mistake, Burdick knows; the agency previously said her benefits would last until April, a year after she originally filed.
Last April, work for drivers at the Santa Rosa-based Woody’s Wine Tours, where Burdick had been working since February of 2020, had petered out. Even when Burdick was receiving benefits, California’s EDD system would not register the income she had made working as an independent driver before joining Woody’s, she said, drastically decreasing her on-paper income. Her allotted benefit before the stoppage was $174 weekly.
“If I work one day, (I make more than that), and then I don’t certify — qualify to receive benefits,” Burdick said. “I would rather be working.”
She has not yet attempted to reach anyone from the EDD, Burdick said, only because her husband Tom had his benefits frozen the same way just a couple of weeks ago. He “tried, and tried, and tried and never got to anybody,” Burdick said. Even receptive staffers at Congressman Mike Thompson’s officer were unable to help him. One day his benefits – and backpay – just resumed. Burdick is hoping the same thing will eventually happen to her. (Congressman Thompson’s office did not respond to request for comment.)
In the meantime, things are tight — this month was the first time Burdick and her husband were unable to make their full rent. They’ve exhausted their savings trying to keep up with car payments, utility bills and other necessities, she said. On Monday, she was hoping the governor’s having lifted the most recent lockdown order would just allow her to return to work.
At first, it was the radio silence that most frustrated Napa resident Kendall Heckendorn, 64, a former concierge at Silverado Resort whose EDD claim was frozen two weeks after she applied for unemployment a second time in December. Heckendorn went to verify her identity using ID.me and found that the platform would not let her upload her identification, because she had already used it to receive a new California driver’s license from the DMV last February.
“My husband has had a career in technology, so it’s not that I can’t figure out the website,” Heckendorn said. “There just is no way to do it.”
She managed to get on the phone with someone from the EDD — a small blessing, considering her many previous attempts to reach the agency had been unsuccessful. The representative kept Heckendorn on the phone for “over an hour,” trying to connect her with someone who could help.
“Eventually, he just said they didn’t know what to do,” she said. She tried to give him her contact information; he wouldn’t take it. In the end, the representative gave her a physical address where she could mail a copy of her identification. She did so more than a month ago, and has heard nothing back. Heckendorn and her husband, who is retired, have been subsisting on Social Security income and savings they put away while she was receiving the extra $600 weekly CARES benefit last spring.
“I felt very uncertain about what would happen, so I was stashing away every extra penny — and sure enough, I’m glad I did,” Heckendorn said. She’s been using that money in part to pay for out-of-pocket health insurance — a cost that will shrink once Heckendorn turns 65 and becomes eligible for MediCal in a few months.
“I’m just lucky. I’m thinking — what (is happening to) these people who are losing all their income, who may have lost their health coverage as well?” she said, reflecting on the EDD stoppages. “It’s pretty shocking.”
The road ahead
Out of desperation, Alvarez has tried to “do the welfare thing,” applying for state benefits including CalFresh as she’s waited for her claim to process this month. The respective agencies she’s contacted have told her the income she’s receiving from the EDD makes her ineligible — a cruel kind of irony.
“God, so many times,” Alvarez said, asked if she’d made attempts to reach an EDD representative. “I’ve been on the phone, waiting, on hold, for hours. One time I was on, the message told me to keep holding, and then finally I heard a message thanking me for calling and telling me to call back (another time).”
Burdick, having heard the news Napa County could reopen for outdoor dining and wine tastings this week, was hopeful she might really be able to get back to work. It’s been maddening to have to rely on the EDD for what minimal payments she was receiving. It’s ridiculous, she says, that a system upon which so many people are heavily reliant is this dysfunctional.
“We’re almost a year in, now,” Burdick said. “This should have been figured out eight months ago. The frustration of the EDD not functioning — it’s just ridiculous.”
Asked what message she’d want to deliver to elected officials about the agency’s dysfunction, Burdick paused.
“Get your sh-t together,” she said.
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You can reach Sarah Klearman at (707) 256-2213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.