COVID downturn: California's unemployment rate soared to 15.5% in April, 2.3 million jobs lost

California's unemployment rate soared to 15.5% in April as the nation's most populous state lost 2.3 million jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- California's unemployment rate soared to 15.5% in April as the nation's most populous state lost 2.3 million jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic that shuttered most businesses.

The state's unemployment rate increased 10.2 percentage points since March, the largest one month rise since 1976, when the state began using its current formula to measure job losses.

It broke the record set in March. And it shows, just one month after the pandemic took hold, that California had already surpassed the 12.3% unemployment rate it reached during the Great Recession a decade ago.

Still, the numbers released Friday by the California Employment Development Department only tell part of the story. The report is based on a survey conducted the week of April 12. Many more have lost their jobs since then, with the department reporting 5.1 million people have filed for unemployment benefits since March.

The surge of claims has exhausted the state's unemployment trust fund, forcing it to borrow billions of dollars from the federal government. Department Director Sharon Hilliard says the agency is preparing to hire an additional 1,800 people to handle the claims. But she said to answer all of the department's phone calls it would need a staff of 28,000 full-time employees working from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week.

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Melanie Hern has not received any unemployment money even though she lost her job as a bartender over two months ago.

The 28-year-old has been calling the California agency overwhelmed with unemployment applications everyday but is often put on hold or is hung up on. She said the agency last asked her to verify her identity five weeks ago, but she hasn't heard back even after sending what was requested.

Hern says she has turned to borrowing funds from her family, and her boyfriend has stepped in to pay most of her bills.

"I'm going into debt, because I'm having to push back my bills as much as I can in hopes of getting unemployment," she said. She said she has resisted checking how much she owes: "It's one of those things where I've stopped looking because it makes you kind of sick to your stomach."

The Folsom resident said she plans to return to work next week at a restaurant.

But she said "that's not going to make up for the two and a half months I've been out of work" and the unemployment benefits that haven't arrived.

It's been similar stories across California. On Thursday, state lawmakers vented their constituents' frustration to Hilliard during a public hearing.

"I get that there is an unprecedented workload, but I believe govt can do better and it has to do better at this time," said Assemblyman David Chiu, a Democrat from San Francisco. "We have never heard the type of suffering that people are experiencing right now."

Hilliard said she agreed with Chiu that the delays are "not acceptable."

"We are working hard to make sure we are addressing all of the concerns as quickly as possible," she said.

Mia Foster, 37, live in Elk Grove with her husband and three children. She was furloughed form her job providing IT services to health care clinics. She said it took her five weeks to get her unemployment benefits. She said she had to ration food with her children to make it last longer.

"At first I thought I was fine," she said. "But after a week or two you really, it does kind of take a toll on you mentally."
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