Good morning, California. It’s Monday, March 29.

Businesses to shoulder costs

California’s unemployment rate fell to a pandemic low of 8.5% in February, the Employment Development Department announced Friday — even as its jobless benefits fund sank deeper into the red, imperiling economic recovery.

The Golden State recovered nearly 91% of the jobs it lost in December and January, with leisure and hospitality gaining 102,200 jobs as restaurants and hotels reopened. But its unemployment rate, which is still more than double what it was in February 2020, is the third-highest in the country. And the state has borrowed a staggering 40% of the $53 billion the federal government has loaned to cash-strapped states and territories to pay jobless benefits. California’s unemployment insurance debt amounts to $21.2 billion — a deficit EDD officials expect to hit $48 billion by the end of the year.

Likely picking up the tab: California businesses, which pay taxes financing the state’s unemployment insurance fund. They’re already paying a 15% emergency surcharge due to the fund’s insolvency, and many say higher unemployment taxes will make it harder for them to recover and rehire workers, CalMatters’ Lauren Hepler reports.

Economists say the time is ripe to overhaul California’s unemployment insurance fund, which is the most unstable in the nation. Although paying jobless claims has been one of California’s most pervasive challenges amid the pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom has largely avoided mentioning the issue apart from forming and disbanding an EDD “strike team” last year. Critics noted the unemployment agency was conspicuously absent in his State of the State speech earlier this month.

But problems remain rampant. The department’s backlog has topped 1 million claims for eight straight weeks, though EDD said on Friday that 86% of the logjam is due to jobless Californians not certifying their eligibility as required. But the department’s own website has hindered certification, and EDD acknowledged in a Friday report to the state Legislature that hundreds of thousands of certified claims were still “pending Department resolution” as of March 13.

EDD also answered just 10.5% of the 2.5 million calls it received from March 13 to 20, according to a dashboard the agency published Friday. Those 2.5 million calls came from about 311,000 unique callers — indicating that each person called EDD about eight times in an attempt to get through.

______________

The coronavirus bottom line: As of Sunday, California had 3,562,191 confirmed cases (+0.1% from previous day) and 57,746 deaths (+0.3% from previous day), according to a CalMatters tracker.

California has administered 17,136,841 vaccine doses.

Plus: CalMatters regularly updates this pandemic timeline tracking the state’s daily actions. We’re also tracking the state’s coronavirus hospitalizations by county and lawsuits against COVID-19 restrictions.


Listen to a roundup of essential California news on the California State of Mind podcast. This week, we discuss the lack of diversity in UC and CSU campus police, K-12 school reopenings and the state’s unemployment agency woes.


A Message from our Sponsor


1. Vaccine appointment backlog could last weeks

Patients receive COVID-19 vaccines at a mass drive-thru vaccination site at Oakland Coliseum on Feb. 26, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

California is throwing open vaccine eligibility to everyone 50 and older on Thursday and everyone 16 and older on April 15 — but there may not be enough appointments to meet demand until the end of April or early May, the CEO of the health insurer running the Golden State’s vaccine rollout told CalMatters’ Barbara Feder Ostrov and Ana Ibarra.

  • Blue Shield CEO Paul Markovich: “When you make millions of people eligible overnight, there’s not millions of appointments immediately available at that moment.”

Further complicating matters, two federally run mass vaccination sites in Oakland and Los Angeles are slated to close April 11, though county health agencies are considering taking over the sites themselves. The federal sites had prided themselves as being accessible to people who rely on public transit, raising questions as to how the state will ensure Californians facing technical, transportation or language barriers will be able to secure appointments once the vaccine floodgates open. Others say the two-week window separating 50-plus eligibility and 16-plus eligibility isn’t long enough to ensure older, more vulnerable Californians are vaccinated first.

2. Oakland schools cancel planned reopening

A group of anonymous parent activists calling themselves Guerrilla Momz protest against school closures at Astro Park in Oakland on Feb. 28, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

In another sign that the battle over reopening California’s schools is far from over, more than a dozen Oakland preschools and elementary schools canceled their planned Tuesday reopening after most teachers chose not to return until required to do so in mid-April, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Their decision, which came in spite of a district-union deal, an $800 stipend and state-prioritized vaccines, underscores the breadth of challenges facing public schools working to get students back into the classroom. The lack of teachers forced an additional 30 Oakland schools to scale back reopening plans, and San Francisco is confronting a teacher shortage of its own, suggesting that districts may have to hire large swaths of substitutes in order to reopen campuses fully. Meanwhile, many parents are frustrated that teachers aren’t returning even under a hybrid schedule consisting of only five hours of in-person instruction per week.

3. Protests against anti-Asian racism continue

Demonstrators attend the #StopAsianHate Community Rally at San Jose City Hall Plaza on March 21, 2021. Photo by Nhat V. Meyer, Bay Area News Group

Thousands of Californians gathered for the second straight weekend in Los Angeles, Sacramento, the Bay Area and elsewhere to protest anti-Asian racism amid escalating violence and harassment against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, increasing pressure on law enforcement to classify such incidents as hate crimes. On Friday, the San Francisco District Attorney’s office elevated misdemeanor charges against a defendant who allegedly attacked an Asian American man to felony assault and hate crime charges.

Meanwhile, the Sacramento City Council on Sunday released an open letter denouncing protesters who planned to demonstrate outside City Manager Howard Chan’s house in response to his handling of police misconduct. The protesters were circulating a wanted-style poster with Chan’s name written in red letters resembling dripping blood, an image they later acknowledged “may be triggering” even as they reiterated their commitment “to standing in solidarity with the API community.” The protest ultimately drew around 20 demonstrators and a heavy police presence. Beforehand, activists said that law enforcement would use “the guise of Asian hate crimes as a scapegoat” to “paint a bad image on protesters.”

  • City Councilmember Mai Vang: “The graphic image used to intimidate and promote a protest at City Manager Howard Chan’s home is absolutely reckless and harmful and particularly dangerous during a time of increased hate and violence against Asian American communities.”

CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Factory-built modular housing could solve one of the most vexing aspects of California’s housing crisis, but will politicians embrace it or strangle it?

State regulators undermining clean energy transition: The California Public Utilities Commission continues to double down on gas despite legal mandates to ramp up renewable energy, argue Luis Amezcua of the Sierra Club and V. John White of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies.

State regulators must protect wetlands: Audubon reviewed eight groundwater management plans and found they all fell short in their consideration of managed wetlands, writes Samantha Arthur of Audubon California.


Other things worth your time

How the GOP leveraged partisan news sites in targeted California House seats. // CalMatters

Dianne Feinstein becomes California’s longest-serving U.S. senator. // Los Angeles Times

Rob Bonta is already preparing for the 2022 attorney general’s race. // Los Angeles Times

Why the legal cannabis industry wants California’s new top cop to bust marijuana. // Forbes

Latinos inclined to support Newsom recall, poll finds. // Sacramento Bee

Southern California’s public health leadership turned over during coronavirus pandemic. // Daily News

COVID testing made California-based Curative huge. Can its tests be trusted? // Los Angeles Times

This Bay Area county fined businesses 50 times more than any other. // Mercury News

Facebook, Uber set reopening dates for Bay Area offices. // San Francisco Chronicle

California theme parks must close some indoor rides and shows, new state guidelines say. // Daily News

#FreeBritney movement prompts lawmakers to consider changing conservatorship laws. // Los Angeles Times

Homeless Californians sue for their rights, block city actions. // Mercury News


See you tomorrow.

Tips, insight or feedback? Email emily@calmatters.org.

Follow me on Twitter: @emily_hoeven

Subscribe to CalMatters newsletters here.

Follow CalMatters on Facebook and Twitter.

CalMatters is now available in Spanish on TwitterFacebook and RSS.


We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Gary Reed with any commentary questions: gary@calmatters.org, (916) 234-3081.

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...