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California Labor Secretary Reacts To Latest Unemployment Figures

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As the nation tries to get the rate of new cases of coronavirus under control, there's another rate that is skyrocketing - the rate of people losing their jobs. We learned today that more than 5 million people applied for unemployment benefits last week. That is 22 million people total applying for benefits in the last four weeks. Devin Amato is one of them. He lives in Long Beach, Calif., and worked at a graphics and printing company. He was furloughed in March, and finances are tight for him and his wife right now.

DEVIN AMATO: We're definitely making cuts. We're definitely worried about where we're going to be in a couple of months, even a month. Like, right now we're getting our produce, and we're basically using every single thing. We're cutting the tops of the carrots off and cooking those in soup. Everything that we can cook, we're cooking it.

CHANG: In California, more than 660,000 people filed for unemployment last week. Julie Su is the state's secretary of Labor and Workforce Development Agency, and she joins us now. Welcome.

JULIE SU: Thank you.

CHANG: So I saw that just yesterday Gov. Gavin Newsom expanded call center hours for the agency that handles unemployment claims here in California. Let me just ask you, what has it been like handling such a huge volume of claims right now?

SU: Right. So this is definitely an unprecedented time for our unemployment insurance claim processing. This whole pandemic is not just hard for people physically. It's also a huge economic and emotional source of stress. And unemployment insurance is meant to tide people over. We have redirected over 1,300 staff to help handle unemployment insurance claims...

CHANG: Wow.

SU: ...In order to keep our payments happening, and I'll say that many of those are - they volunteered to be redirected. So there's a tremendous recognition of the need and a desire to meet it. The governor did announce that we are going to expand our call center for unemployment insurance to seven days a week, 12 hours a day. We have just worked across all of government to make sure that we are meeting this need, ensuring that our system doesn't crash so that we can prevent any disruption in our ability to get payments made. And then we also just this week started paying out the federal CARES Act - $600 per week for up to four months for people who are eligible for UI.

CHANG: Well, let me talk a little bit more about that. I wanted to discuss the enormous number of independent contractors and gig workers here in California. The relief package passed by Congress last month that you've just mentioned, it does expand unemployment benefits to those kind of workers. But people in California won't be able to apply for those benefits - oh. Did we lose...

SU: Hello. Oh. I'm still here.

CHANG: There you are. I don't know if you were able to hear my question. Were you able to hear my question?

SU: I heard you say people won't be able to apply for these benefits.

CHANG: Yes, until April 28. These are independent contractors and gig workers. Why the holdup?

SU: Right. So there - in addition to regular unemployment insurance, the CARES Act does include what's called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. It's for the many self-employed, independent contractors, employees who don't have enough work history - meaning they don't have enough in the...

CHANG: Right.

SU: ...Unpaid wages to qualify, right? And so we've heard from hundreds and thousands of the self-employed, for example, who've spent their life building a business and now really need this assistance. So we are doing everything we can to get that stirred up quickly.

CHANG: But why can they not apply for those benefits until April 28?

SU: Right. So we made a decision that it was really important to able to, like, turn around the payments quickly once somebody applied. So it is going to take us about two weeks to set up a system in which people can apply. They're going to apply through unemployment insurance, and then for them, they will not show any employment wages because they were, let's say, self-employed. At that point, they can choose Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, and they will be able to get their benefits within 24 to 48 hours.

So we wanted to not just set up the application part of it, which could have been done quicker, but make sure that back end payment - knowing that what people really need is this money in their pockets, we wanted to make that also happen in a quick turnaround time.

CHANG: What have conversations with the federal government been like for you over the past few months, I mean, and/or weeks? Are you getting the guidance you need to help the people in your state?

SU: Yeah. I mean, it's clear that the federal government wants this Pandemic Unemployment Assistance in particular to be paid out and to be paid out quickly. So they've been great about saying, you know, we want states to exercise some flexibility in setting this up. You know, they put out guidance. I think it was about a week ago. And they've also said that these benefits will be available going back in time up to February. So even though - even if they're not going to apply until, like, April 28, we can still pay them going back to whenever they were affected by COVID up through February.

CHANG: OK.

SU: So I think that's helpful.

CHANG: Julie Su is secretary of the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency.

Thank you very much.

SU: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRENTEMOLLER'S "MISS YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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