With federal unemployment benefits of $600 per week set to expire today and nearly 1 million claims backlogged at California’s unemployment department, millions of Californians are teetering on the edge of a financial cliff — and increasingly desperate for answers from elected officials.

State lawmakers on Thursday eviscerated the beleaguered agency for leaving many residents in limbo without a lifeline, a day after Gov. Gavin Newsom launched a “strike team” to investigate its outdated technology and share recommendations within the next 45 days.

Though the Employment Development Department has paid nearly $55 billion in benefits to more than 7.6 million people since the onset of the pandemic, it’s struggled to keep up with demand. Its rate of paying claims within two weeks fell from 88% in March to 52% in June, despite hiring 5,300 temporary employees, expanding its call center hours, and creating an online chat bot.  

And if additional federal benefits are in the works, it could take the department up to 20 weeks to process them, director Sharon Hilliard said Thursday.

  • Assemblymember Jay Obernolte, a Big Bear Lake Republican: “I think that the level of outrage that you’re hearing today would be nothing compared to the level of outrage if we tell the people of California it would take almost half a year to process their unemployment insurance supplement.”

It could also take the state until at least the end of September to process backlogged claims.

  • A San Diego resident testifying amid tears Thursday: “This is my life. This is my family’s life. And it’s very hard to have to fight for things that I was awarded or entitled to.”

Republican lawmakers recently requested a state audit of the department, but a committee this week delayed considering it.

For more information on how to apply for unemployment benefits and pandemic unemployment assistance in California, check out this helpful explainer from CalMatters’ Lauren Hepler and Stephen Council.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of 9 p.m. Thursday night, California had 485,502 confirmed coronavirus cases and 8,909 deaths from the virus, according to a CalMatters tracker.

Also: CalMatters regularly updates this pandemic timeline tracking the state’s daily actions. And we’re tracking the state’s coronavirus hospitalizations by county.


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Other stories you should know

1. California’s coronavirus testing task force loses members, influence

A Clinica de la Raza staff member sanitizes her hands after administering Covid-19 tests in an Oakland parking lot on July 7. Photo by Jane Tyska, Bay Area News Group

California’s coronavirus testing task force has lost more than half of its members — many of them private-sector executives — potentially jeopardizing the state’s ability to form partnerships crucial to providing adequate testing amid supply constraints and overwhelmed labs, the Los Angeles Times reports. Dozens of members haven’t been replaced after their three-month volunteer period ended June 30, and the state didn’t announce new co-chairs until six weeks after transitions were set to begin. The task force has also lost influence — its new leaders report to a lower-level public health official than before, which could complicate planning efforts and delay key supply purchases.

  • Lawrence Gostin of the World Health Organization: “It’s a serious mistake. California is far from out of the water. It’s probable that the worst is yet to come. You cannot skimp on testing strategy — full stop.”

2. Why Californians with mental illness turn to taxpayer-funded treatment

Teresa Pasquini in her El Sobrante home on March 12. Pasquni has spent the last 20 years advocating for her son’s care after he began showing symptoms for schizoaffective disorder as a teenager. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

It’s an open secret among Californians who care for those with serious mental illnesses: Medi-Cal, the state’s health insurance program for the poor, often provides more extensive services than private insurance, leading many families to leave their plans behind for taxpayer-funded treatment, CalMatters’ Jocelyn Wiener reports. Despite state and federal laws that guarantee patients equivalent coverage for physical and mental health treatment, many private insurers aren’t required to offer mental health services to the same extent Medi-Cal does — resulting in what one expert called “patient dumping” onto the public health system.

  • Meiram Bendat, Los Angeles attorney and psychotherapist: California regulators “are not protecting the interests of the taxpayers and are allowing the insurance companies to enrich themselves by pawning off their most severely compromised and sickest members to the public welfare system.”
  • Mary Ellen Grant of the California Association of Health Plans: “We’re not aware of any existing evidence that long-term mental health care needs are better served by county mental health agencies, nor in which counties this alleged trend is happening.”

3. Exclusive: California environmental programs take financial hit

An all-electric Proterra bus operated by San Joaquin Regional Transit District. Image via Creative Commons

Key environmental programs have lost nearly $105 million as the pandemic upends California’s carbon market, affecting projects that incentivize environmentally friendly cars, clean up pollution in low-income communities and tackle methane excreted by cows, CalMatters’ Rachel Becker reports in an exclusive story. The carbon market’s financial shortfall also raises questions about whether it can be relied upon to both cut emissions — the state is counting on it to deliver nearly half the greenhouse gas reductions it seeks to reach by 2030 — and pay for other programs.

  • Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, a Bell Gardens Democrat: “It’s an unsustainable source of funding. … Whether it was now or down the road, we knew that this was going to be a declining pot of money.”

4. State Supreme Court bans pension spiking

California Supreme Court justices in San Francisco, pre-pandemic. Photo courtesy of Judicial Council of California

Local governments saddled with hundreds of billions of dollars in pension debt got some reprieve Thursday after the state Supreme Court unanimously banned “pension spiking,” or the artificial boosting of public employee retirement benefits, CalMatters’ Ben Christopher reports. The ruling, almost certain to result in further litigation, carved a small crack in the half-century-old California Rule — which holds that retirement benefits promised to a worker at the beginning of a job can only be reduced if replaced with something of equal value. It came at an opportune time for public pensions, whose debt is rising even as their funds fall amid the deepening recession. But labor advocates say the ruling is a Trojan horse that will lead to further gutting of promised benefits.


CalMatters commentary

School waivers put all at risk: We must meet five clear criteria before we allow schools to reopen for in-person classes, argues Jeff Freitas of the California Federation of Teachers.

Holding law enforcement accountable: California in 2016 created a statewide board for police oversight, and we must pressure it to continue its mandate with more urgency, writes Karen Glover, an associate professor at CSU San Marcos.

Save local newspapers: The Legislature must exempt community newspapers’ contract workers from AB 5, or risk losing a vital voice for their constituents and for democracy, argues David Chavern of News Media Alliance.

Thank you, Lenny Mendonca: We need to normalize discussing, seeking and obtaining mental health treatment for the well-being of every individual and family, writes Cathryn Leff of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists.


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Other things worth your time

California breaks coronavirus death record for fourth time this month. // Los Angeles Times

Dozens infected with COVID-19 in California’s youth prisons. // Sacramento Bee

How coronavirus is rewriting employment law. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Oakland police restricted in use of force during protests. // San Francisco Chronicle

California has a new plan to protect water supply from climate change, but some say it’s based on old thinking. // CapRadio

Is America’s biggest gas utility abusing customer money? A California watchdog demands answers. // Los Angeles Times

Demand for skateboards surges in California, but supply is down. // Capitol Weekly


See you Monday.

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Emily Hoeven writes the daily WhatMatters newsletter for CalMatters. Her reporting, essays, and opinion columns have been published in San Francisco Weekly, the Deseret News, the San Francisco Business...