Desperate times call for desperate measures.

With hundreds of thousands of jobless Californians waiting more than three weeks for the state Employment Development Department to process their claims, the agency announced Thursday that it will start automatically paying benefits to claimants who have already cleared fraud filters and verified their identity and who continue to certify their eligibility.

However, EDD acknowledged it may end up sending unemployment benefits to people later determined to be ineligible. The department also noted it may end up overpaying certain claimants, in which case it could be difficult to get the money back: Overpayments can be waived as a result of fraud, if the jobless person demonstrates a financial hardship, or if the extra payment wasn’t the claimant’s fault.

The move is reminiscent of one EDD made early in the pandemic, when it paid claimants before verifying their eligibility in an attempt to speed up processing times. A scathing state audit found the decision not only significantly increased the possibility of fraud, but also could have resulted in EDD paying $5.5 billion to 1.7 million ineligible claimants.

  • Daniela Urban, executive director of the Center for Workers’ Rights: “This is a monumental change by EDD that will allow more claimants to be paid on time.”
  • Assemblymember Jim Patterson, a Fresno Republican: “This is a stunning admission that (EDD) can’t do their fundamental task. Now to clear their giant backlog, they’re going to take the dangerous risk of paying fraudsters, too.”

The announcement comes just days after EDD hired a former federal prosecutor to help crack down on unemployment fraud. EDD also said Thursday that Bank of America, which delivers California’s unemployment benefits via prepaid debit cards, will start sending out chip-enabled cards on Sunday to reduce fraud.

It also comes amid an avalanche of claims. More than 58,000 Californians filed new jobless claims for the week ending July 17, an increase of more than 1,300 from the week before, according to federal data released Thursday.

Yet thousands of open positions are going unfilled, keeping the Golden State’s unemployment rate at a static 7.7%. A United Ways of California study offers one reason why residents may not be clamoring to return to service jobs: The rising costs of housing and child care have outstripped wage growth so much that 3.5 million working households don’t make enough for the most basic necessities, CalMatters’ Erika Paz reports.

The coronavirus bottom line: As of Wednesday, California had 3,778,047 confirmed cases (+0.1% from previous day) and 63,695 deaths (+0.05% from previous day), according to a CalMatters tracker.

California has administered 43,214,612 vaccine doses, and 61.7% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

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.

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1. Newsom approval rating drops

Gov. Gavin Newsom holds a press conference at The Unity Council in Oakland on May 10, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

​​Gov. Gavin Newsom’s approval rating has slipped to 49%, according to an Inside California Politics/Emerson College poll released Thursday. That’s a dip from the 54% and 52% ratings he garnered in May polls from the Public Policy Institute of California and UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, respectively. The new poll found that 48% of voters would keep Newsom in office in the Sept. 14 recall election, compared to 43% who would recall him and 9% who remain undecided. But — in a sign that Newsom will face political challenges even if he survives the recall — only 42% of voters said they would re-elect him in 2022, compared to 58% who said they think it’s time for someone new. In another series of warning signs, voters mostly gave Newsom “poor” marks for his response to the pandemic, homelessness, wildfires and drought. 

Of the 46 candidates running to replace Newsom, Larry Elder received the most support, with 16% of poll respondents saying they would vote for him. Kevin Faulconer and John Cox were tied at 6%, while Kevin Kiley and Caitlyn Jenner were tied at 4%. A majority of voters — 53% — remained undecided. On Saturday, the California Republican Party executive committee is to decide whether to move forward with an endorsement process — a debate that has already set off fierce intraparty fighting.

2. UC approves rare tuition hike

Students sit outside Royce Hall at UCLA on Aug. 7, 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

Tuition at the University of California will rise each year for the next five years under a plan the Board of Regents approved Thursday, a rare step for a system that has only raised tuition once in the past decade. Despite widespread student pushback, the regents said the plan would promote stability: Once tuition spikes for an incoming undergraduate class, it stays flat for the next six years for that class — allowing students and their families to more reliably calculate the cost of a degree. It also doesn’t go as far as an earlier proposal that would have raised tuition for each incoming undergraduate class, every year, indefinitely, CalMatters’ Mikhail Zinshteyn reports — and it diverts a greater share of money to financial aid for in-state students. The regents, who will vote on another tuition hike in five years, also point out that it won’t affect the majority of UC undergraduates, 56% of whom currently pay no tuition at all.

  • UC Regent Cecilia Estolano: The tuition raise is basically “a progressive tax … You’re going to charge more affluent people a bit more, but you’re going to give them a promise in exchange: Everybody will have the faculty and staff ratio that they expect out of the University of California.”

Meanwhile, Caitlin Flanagan, in a scathing essay in the Atlantic, slammed the UC for nixing its SAT and ACT requirement, purportedly because the tests discriminate against low-income Black and Latino students.

  • Flanagan: “If we were to think about this assertion rationally instead of emotionally, we would have to face what California has done: consigned its most vulnerable students to some of the worst K–12 schools in America.” 

3. Limiting ‘forever chemicals’

A water fountain at Rio Hondo Park in Pico Rivera, CA, on Nov. 6, 2020. California has proposed a new health goal for regulating perfluorinated contaminants in drinking water. Photo by Tash Kimmell for CalMatters.
A water fountain at Rio Hondo Park in Pico Rivera on Nov. 6, 2020. Photo by Tash Kimmell for CalMatters

California on Thursday took a major step toward regulating dangerous “forever chemicals” in drinking water by proposing new health limits for two of the most pervasive contaminants, which were long used to make nonstick coatings and food packaging, CalMatters’ Rachel Becker reports. Under the new recommendations, drinking water would be considered safe if the chemicals make up one part per trillion or less — a minuscule amount 70 times smaller than the federal government’s non-binding guidelines. Though it will likely take years for California’s recommendations to become enforceable standards, experts say time is of the essence: Traces of the two contaminants, which have been linked to kidney cancer and other serious health conditions, are in the well water of 146 public water systems serving nearly 16 million Californians.

In other environmental news, President Joe Biden’s administration unveiled plans Thursday to study the environmental impact of decommissioning eight of Southern California’s 23 offshore oil and gas drilling platforms. The announcement comes several months after Biden and Newsom reached an agreement that could open California up to offshore wind farms.

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CalMatters commentary

Plant poachers threaten biodiversity: A new bill protecting dudleya would be California’s first law specifically targeting thieves who make millions stripping coastlines of native succulents, write Nick Jensen of the California Native Plant Society and Patrick Foy of the California Fish and Game Wardens Supervisors and Managers Association.

Other things worth your time

Bay Area counties urge employers to require vaccinations. // Mercury News

Delta variant response in Los Angeles splits local leaders. // Washington Post

Parent groups sue Newsom over California school mask mandate. // Sacramento Bee

How to help protect your school from ransomware attacks. // CalMatters

How California plans to deter costly special education disputes. // EdSource

Former Newsom aide Nathan Ballard takes plea deal. // San Francisco Chronicle

Grand jury finds Stockton Unified trustees failed as district leaders in scathing report. // The Record

Feds announce plan to crack down on firearms trafficking in the Bay Area and Sacramento. // San Francisco Chronicle

As tech transforms Tahoe towns, study finds thousands of locals in need of housing. // SFGATE

‘Upzoning’ in my backyard? California bill won’t turbocharge home building, study says. // Los Angeles Times

Republican congressman bulldozes cannabis grows of Hmong farmers in California. // Politico

Klamath farmers bank on fish in California drought conflict. // Los Angeles Times

Bay Area refineries must dramatically cut pollution, air district says in historic vote. // KQED

$20,000 trash cans? City looks to roll out costly prototypes for pilot on street corners. // San Francisco Chronicle

See you Monday.

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