Struggling to Get Unemployment Assistance? You’re Not Alone!

Our Rideshare Guy team of contributors aren’t just writers; they’re drivers and gig workers just like you. Many of them depend on the fast and flexible money they earn from their jobs, so when COVID-19 reared up and struck, they were hurt like everybody else.

Jay has had some success getting benefits, but it was far from easy and he had to follow up, be extremely proactive, and have all of his financial records handy. Watch Jay’s latest video on why it’s so hard to get unemployment benefits as an independent contractor here.

This is one story of what happened when one driver applied for Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits from California’s Employment Development Department (EDD).

Unfortunately, many states appear to still be having problems processing unemployment claims. We also share tips below on what you should know about unemployment insurance, how to prepare your claim, and how to follow up with it once you’ve submitted it. 

“I can’t believe this is happening.”

My lovely wife says that so often these days it’s become a catchphrase around our apartment – we morbidly joke it’ll be on her tombstone (not as funny as English writer Spike Milligan’s epitaph carved on his tombstone: “I told you I was Ill.”). But it is happening, and it’s completely disrupted our lives, and probably your life too.

I stopped driving for Uber and Lyft on March 15th. For various reasons, my wife and I may be at a higher risk from this new coronavirus, and there are still a lot of unknowns about this disease. Plus, business was tapering off, and did I really want to risk our lives for what was now a less-than-minimum-wage job? Nope.

I decided it was time to move to the fifth stage of grief, accept that this is the new reality, and start working on my plan B. In the meantime, our family needs income, so it’s time to file for unemployment.

I knew I would have to apply for unemployment ASAP, as these things take time, and I anticipated the EDD would be processing a lot of applications.

Starting the Unemployment Application Process

I had no idea! Between March 14th and May 22nd, the California EDD processed 5.4 million claims; that’s 28% of California’s workforce as estimated by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

EDD Benefits Program Online; where the fun begins.

But I didn’t know it when I applied, so on March 18th I headed over to the EDD website to file my claim.

I was greatly assisted by Rideshare Drivers United, an advocacy group for Rideshare Drivers based in Southern California. At the time, I didn’t see the excellent resources page RDU has put together for drivers, but I did attend an RDU Facebook Live seminar about filing for unemployment insurance.

Rather than take screenshots and bore you with all the details of EDD’s application process, I’m going to steer you to the RDU website, as well as links to very detailed and useful articles and videos fellow contributor Jay Cradeur has already posted:

Author’s printout of his application confirmation.

After filing for regular unemployment (the PUA program was not yet in place when I applied), I received a confirmation number from EDD, and then it was radio silence until around April 10th, when I received a thick envelope from EDD. Thick is good, no? No! Not good!

Inside the envelope were a few form letters, one noting that my claim had been filed, and another hopefully entitled “Notice of Unemployment Insurance Award.” Yay!

No unemployment benefits for you! Next!

The letter went on to tell me my maximum benefit amount was $0, my weekly benefit amount was $0, and I had made $0 in the four quarters prior to my claim.

What? RDU suspects Uber and Lyft are clinging to the idea that we’re independent contractors, and won’t give EDD earnings data. The cool kids are calling this the “Zero Letter.”

Armed with indignant outrage, I typed up a letter explaining that Uber and Lyft were my employers:

I’m a driver for Uber/Lyft. These two companies are employers under state law (AB5, Dynamex), and therefore they should report my wages from Q4 2018-Q3 2019. If they do not, I have enclosed 1099s and earnings summaries from 2018 and 2019.

I printed out my earnings statements and 1099s, followed the not-so-clear instructions on submitting wage information on the EDD website (basically you have to print and mail your additional information to the EDD office that sent your letter). After photocopying everything, I slid it into a Priority Mail envelope, which the USPS noted an “individual picked up” the very next day.

If only I had waited a few days; Jay wrote an awesome article on gig worker unemployment benefits (and posted a great video) on appealing. Needless to say, I never heard back.

A Quick Note on the Difference Between PUA and UI

For the purposes of this article, I’m mainly talking about unemployment insurance (UI), which is a type of state-provided insurance that pays out when you lose your job and meet certain eligibility requirements.

Applying for UI was the first thing you could do as an independent contractor to receive financial assistance because of COVID. We were encouraged to sign up, and so sign up I did.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) is another program.  It temporarily expands unemployment insurance eligibility to self-employed workers, freelancers, independent contractors and part-time workers impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

If you’re an independent contractor, you’d want to go the PUA route, but for weeks, many states didn’t have PUA portals nor any way to process claims, so many people went through UI (like I did) first.

This is true no matter what state you’re in – when we first began publishing Jay’s articles on unemployment insurance, PUA, and more, we heard from people in Texas, Florida, New Jersey, Arizona – and those were just some of the states severely behind in processing unemployment and PUA claims.

For some of you, you still haven’t received any unemployment insurance, or you haven’t received the full amount because of PUA processing issues.

Following Up for Unemployment Benefits

A month later, I logged back into my account and noted that my new claim had disappeared. I then attempted to call, but after about 20 attempts at different times and different numbers (I even tried the TTY line using a special website), I gave up.

So where’s my current claim?

Luckily, my wife, son and I got $2,900 in stimulus money, as well as about $2,400 in PPP money (I recommend going to Kabbage, which made the process unbelievably fast and easy. There are more assistance programs here).

To date, I have not received any payment from EDD. I don’t want to give up on my unemployment claim, and what I’ve read indicates that re-filing for PUA when I have an open UI claim may screw things up for me even more. What to do?

I reached out to EDD’s communications department, and after several days, they still had not responded to us. However, they did write “the responses to your questions are still being developed and finalized.”

How Have Others Fared Applying for Unemployment?

Other drivers have had more luck applying. Jay Cradeur has gotten his money, and some RSG readers report success.

Danny is a reader who reported the same thing I did: he got the Zero letter after two weeks, and reapplied April 28th. After a week, he started calling EDD “thousands of times” before he got through.

He was told his claim had been cancelled and to again reapply. After multiple calls, he discovered his claim was stuck in regular UI land, but he luckily snagged a regular EDD employee and got the proper claim filed.  “Now I’m just waiting for the Bank of America debit card” so he can receive his benefits.

Allison has driven Uber for years down in North San Diego county, and realized working–especially for the low pay she’s been earning lately–wasn’t worth the risks, plus she had to care for her young granddaughter, so she filed for unemployment.

The process, in the early days of EDD’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, was “frustrating and annoying, but what were my alternatives? There were no rides out there for us.”

After two or three weeks, she got a letter confirming she would be getting the PUA benefits, which was followed up with a phone interview. “I thought she was a scammer, and was on the phone for 20 minutes before she convinced me she was legitimate.” The EDD representative even gave Allison her direct number.

Other drivers report similar stories to mine. Rich, who lives in the Placer county area, supplements his retirement income with Uber driving around Sacramento.

He also filed as an employee, and also got a Zero letter like me. He seems pretty discouraged and confused; “I haven’t gotten any real feedback from Uber about how to proceed with this thing,” and the EDD website is also not very helpful – the phones don’t work and there’s no email address to submit questions.

Preness, who has been driving five years in the Orange County/Ventura area, applied April 1st and also got a zero letter. After six weeks, Preness was told to reapply, which he did on May 18th. He followed up by phone and after two weeks of calling managed to get through again, and was told he had to wait for a call from an analyst who would recompute his earnings and then process a PUA claim instead.

After talking to these RSG readers and doing some research, some patterns start to emerge, and I know that I should reapply for the PUA program – as much as that chafes me. After all, the California legislature passed a bill specifically deeming us employees, so why this rigmarole? EDD has promised a response; look for more info in a future update.

If you’re also struggling with getting unemployment insurance in your state, apply to your state’s PUA portal. This may be an entirely separate page from your state’s unemployment website! Here are what a few around the country look like:

Tips for Applying for Unemployment Insurance

Here are some things I learned while struggling through the unemployment process:

  1. It’s apparent applying for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program is the fastest way to get your money. It’s irksome if you’re worried Uber and Lyft will use the fact you applied as an independent contractor and not an employee as legal “proof” we’re not employees.
  2. Trying to get through by phone ranges from frustrating to impossible, and when you do get through, it’s usually someone who can only answer general questions, not about your specific case.
  3. Instead, try checking your EDD claim history page after you’ve applied.
  4. Screenshot, photocopy or print everything even remotely relevant. Keep a log as well.
  5. At some point after you start getting your weekly PUA money ($167 plus $600 a week), EDD will review any documentation you or the company you worked for submit and redetermine your award, so there’s a chance you’ll eventually be awarded the same amount as you would on regular employment. This is especially important, as the PUA $600 weekly supplement runs out at the end of July.
  6. Print out all your 1099s and pay statements from the Uber/Lyft or other gig-company websites. Would Uber and Lyft do something as crafty as taking your financial data off their servers to avoid paying into the U/I fund? Do you trust them not to?

Also, there’s more money out there for you! Check out our articles on getting money fast, including Federal pandemic relief programs like EIDL and other how to make money opportunities.

Readers, have you been able to get through for unemployment or Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) programs? Which state are you in?

-Gabe @ RSG