How unemployment benefits pushed a freelancer to the brink - Los Angeles Times
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What I learned during the frustrating process of getting my unemployment benefits

An illustration of a clock that looks like a telephone
(Ross May / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images)

It was springtime 2020 in Los Angeles — or as I called it, my hellish coronavirus adventure trying to reach another human in Sacramento.

Like a teenager obsessed with winning concert tickets from a radio station, I began dialing furiously. It was 7:55 a.m., and I was trying to deal with my unemployment benefits.

Here’s my story. Like other freelancers and contractors in L.A., I have a variety of side hustles that allow me to work in creative industries ubiquitous across the Southland. I share this lifestyle with many stylists, event producers, publicists, social-media marketers, photographers, set designers and countless other “for-hire” workers who suddenly found themselves relegated to their couches when the coronavirus hit the U.S. hard three months ago.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I thought I’d get ahead of the coming deluge of millions of people seeking assistance from the state.

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I filed for unemployment on March 16. Mail started coming about a week later. There was the letter about verifying my identity. I quickly dispatched the requested items to Sacramento. Also in the initial mail rush was an invitation to create an online account for “faster service.”

I eagerly went through the steps. And voila, I was in. I “certified” for my initial weeks of unemployment benefits and I was impressed at how easy it all was. I marveled at the convenience of living in a technologically progressive state like California.

Then something happened in my quest.

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Radio silence.

Ghosted by Sacramento.

While sheltering in place, my daily trips to the mailbox turned into a daily check-in on the Employment Development Department website to see if anything was being paid.

I saw how much I was “awarded.” The big, fat goose egg in the amount paid field taunted me daily.

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Near the beginning of April, I started seeing a notice online asking me to “reopen” my claim. How could I reopen a claim that was just filed and never closed? I sent an email through the portal to make an inquiry, and the auto-reply promised five to seven days for a response.

An auto-response brush-off.

For weeks, I sent emails requesting an update or help. None of which elicited a response. I also blocked out four hours each workday in an attempt to get through to someone.

“Sacramento? Sacramento? Sacramento, can you hear me?” I wondered.

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Some days I was a winner and immediately got through to the phone menu. Other times, it took close to 200 tries before I got a connection. And yes, you read that correctly.

These calls — and my mood — ran the gamut from hopeful to despair, excited to disappointed and everything in between. The longing to hear a voice on the other end grew more palpable by the day.

My new friend, the narrator of my daily telephonic adventure whose dulcet tones were always happy to greet me, made me ever so slightly sad when he told me there were already too many people waiting ahead of me. Then he would politely convey that I was about to be disconnected. It didn’t matter how early I started. There was always someone in front of me.

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I managed to learn his scripted messages and recited them verbatim because I’ve heard them so frequently. That’s not something I was hoping to add to my CV. I should have been spending the hours with the Babbel language subscription I started just after beginning quarantine life or more time focused on my new meditation habit.

Although contactless, everything seemed to be de rigueur. But where were the humans who were supposed to answer? In the news, state officials repeatedly touted the successful redirection of tens of thousands of state employees to manage the EDD phone banks.

Still, there was silence.

For a moment through March and April, I was a daily viewer of Gov. Gavin Newsom‘s press briefing. The reassurance that although help would be delayed, we all needed to be patient felt contemptible. Hearing the crowing of “$7 billion paid in benefits already” was hard to swallow on Day 56.

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I tried using my past career skills in public relations to find creative ways to infiltrate the phone system. I hit numbers that didn’t correspond to my inquiry and scoured the internet for a hidden number directly to someone’s office. Heck, I took to tweeting at the EDD, the state secretary of labor and our governor and his communications team as if I were complaining to an airline about bad service.

But nothing.

Not even a “like.”

Sigh.

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Look, nobody wants to be on the “dole,” as our friends in the U.K. call it, but this is an extraordinary circumstance. This is a moment when many of us would rather be working. It’s unfortunate for those in fields where events, concerts and festivals are standard happenings. We’re definitely in this situation for the long run.

As we start to reopen the economy, many Angelenos and others are wondering what hand-holding, hugging and kissing might look like in the weeks and months to come.

Therefore, I continued my daily quest with the EDD, hoping someone would pick up the phone. I just wanted to say, “Hello.” However, I grew weary of how long this would be sustainable. It left me wondering, “Is there anyone out there? Anyone?”

In the middle of May — Day 66, to be exact — I finally got an email response that said my identification had been verified. On Day 77, my quest came to an end, and the funds arrived.

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Looking back, I often wonder about the lesson I was supposed to learn from this endeavor. Did it teach me anything or dispel or reinforce any previously held beliefs? Truth be told, the answer is a resounding yes. I’ve learned that nothing goes according to plan in the time of coronavirus.

Kevin Smothers is a freelance writer living in West Hollywood.


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