How to file for California unemployment benefits

Young woman at home filing for California unemployment benefits on her laptopImage: Young woman at home filing for California unemployment benefits on her laptop

In a Nutshell

If you’re unemployed in California, here’s some info about filing for state unemployment benefits.
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If you’ve been laid off in California, you may have options for filing for unemployment.

Here’s what you should know if you want to file a California unemployment insurance claim.

How do unemployment benefits work in California?

The unemployment insurance program in California is run by the state’s Employment Development Department, or EDD. This agency allows people to file unemployment claims online or by phone, fax or mail.

Typically, California unemployment benefits are available for a maximum of 26 weeks. But under the new federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, the state expanded the length of time workers can receive benefits by an additional 13 weeks.

How can I qualify for California unemployment benefits?

You’ll have to meet certain eligibility requirements to qualify for California unemployment benefits.

  • You must be totally or partially unemployed through no fault of your own. You’re considered “unemployed” during any week where you either performed no work for wages or worked part time and the wages you earned are either $25 less or 25% less than the unemployment benefit you’d be eligible for.
  • You must be able to work, willing to work immediately and actively seeking work.

How you became unemployed will also affect your eligibility. If you were fired, your employer must prove you were fired for misconduct. But if you weren’t, you’ll likely qualify.

If you quit voluntarily, you may still qualify for unemployment if you can show that you quit for a good reason and did everything you could to stay employed. Good causes include unsafe working conditions, medical advice to quit, or protecting yourself or your child from domestic violence.

How much might I get?

The maximum weekly benefit amount in California is $450 and the minimum weekly benefit is $40. How much your weekly benefit will be depends on the wages you earned in the past during a specific period of time called a base period.

Base period explained

The base period will be the first four of the last five calendar quarters completed before you file your claim. For example, if you file your claim in March 2020, your base period will be October 2018 through September 2019.

There are earnings requirements for your base period, too. To qualify for unemployment benefits, you must have earned at least $1,300 in the highest earning quarter of your base period. Or you must have earned $900 in your highest quarter and had total earnings in your base period of at least 125% of that quarter. If you don’t meet these qualifications, then you didn’t earn enough to qualify for unemployment insurance benefits.

If you didn’t earn enough during that time period to qualify for benefits, the state will look at the four most recent completed quarters to determine an alternative base period.

The state of California doesn’t publish the formula it uses to determine your weekly benefit. But if you take the total wages of your highest earning quarter and divide by 26, you’ll get a close estimate of your benefit amount.

For example, if you earn a salary of $36,000 per year, your high-quarter wages would be $9,000 and your weekly benefit amount will be $347.

You can estimate your benefit amount using California’s unemployment benefit calculator.

How can I apply?

You can file a California unemployment claim online or by phone, fax or mail. The EDD recommends filing online, calling it the fastest and most convenient way to file.

If you want to file by phone (using the toll-free number 1-800-300-5616), note that you can do so between 8 a.m. and noon Pacific time on weekdays. If you choose to file by mail or fax, you can download the form here.

When you file, you’ll need to have some information handy.

  • Personal information, including your Social Security number
  • Details on your most recent employer, including the company name, address and phone number, as well as your supervisor’s name
  • The last date you worked and why you’re no longer working
  • Your gross earnings in the last week you worked
  • Information on all employers you worked for during the previous 18 months, including details of the company, when you worked there, how much you earned and how many hours you worked per week

How will I receive my payments?

California issues unemployment benefits using a Visa prepaid debit card. Your card will be mailed to you by Bank of America within five days once your first payment is issued. All of your benefit payments will be automatically loaded to your card.

Once your debit card is activated, you can choose to set up a direct deposit transfer of your benefit payments to a bank account. There’s no cost for that service.

Here are some common fees associated with the card.

  • Out-of-network ATM withdrawal fee ($1)
  • Domestic emergency cash transfer fee ($15)
  • Replacement card fee, express delivery ($10)

There’s a one-week waiting period before you can receive benefits.

When do my benefits end?

You can receive unemployment benefits for 26 weeks in a one-year time frame that begins the week you file your first claim. This can mean either 26 continuous weeks or varying periods of unemployment throughout the year.

To keep receiving benefits, you have to continue to meet these requirements. Every two weeks, you’ll have to resubmit information to the EDD, a process known as certifying for benefits.

Your benefits will end if you don’t recertify your eligibility every two weeks.

What if my claim is rejected?

If you’re denied benefits, you’re entitled to appeal the decision. To do so, you’ll need to use this form to submit your appeal in writing within 30 days. You’ll need to explain why you feel your claim was improperly denied.

You and your former employer will be called for an appeal hearing overseen by an administrative law judge where you’ll both be able to present evidence.

If your claim is denied again, you can still file a “Second-Level Appeal” to the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board. This board has five members appointed by the governor and state legislature.

Next steps

California’s unemployment insurance program can help you navigate the temporary financial crunch brought on by job loss. Be sure to read all the eligibility criteria carefully before filing your claim for California unemployment benefits.

About the author: Andrew Dunn is a veteran journalist with more than a decade of experience as a reporter and editor at North Carolina news organizations, including the Charlotte Observer and the StarNews in Wilmington. In those roles,… Read more.