As a freelance photographer, Mekael Dawson has struggled through the pandemic as opportunities dried up.
"In a world where people are distanced and events are all canceled and gone, that [photography] is not an option," Dawson said.
With California opening back up, he’s starting to get more work, but it’s far from what it was. When the lockdowns began, Dawson felt grateful freelancers were eligible for unemployment benefits. He signed up and started getting unemployment last June, but in September, the checks stopped. He said he was suddenly asked to send in documents to verify his identity.
"I've given the department every variation of a way to show that I am who I am, and I live where and I live, and none of it’s come through," he said.
Dawson says he’s reached out to the Employment Development Department (EDD) multiple times, appealed and spent countless hours on the phone. He’s been trying to resolve the situation for close to nine months.
"It’s been a decent practice in managing my stress," he chuckled.
EDD said it is working through a backlog of tens of thousands of claims. In a statement, the agency wrote, “...We understand how challenging this pandemic has been for millions of people. Since April 2020, EDD Call Centers are and have been open 12 hours a day, seven days a week — which includes evenings and weekends — among many other efforts to continually work to improve the customer experience."
"They reassure you when you call in that they’ve amped up their personnel so they can answer the difficulty of the circumstance and no matter what department you try to reach, no matter how you navigate their automated phone system, it almost always reaches a dead end," Dawson said.
"Not leave a message, not we’ll reach out to you, just goodbye."
In February, at the urging of his mom, he contacted his state representative, Assemblymember Laura Friedman’s office.
"I’ve made more progress with them than I have EDD," Dawson said.
And he’s not alone. Friedman’s office said close to 3,000 residents have reached out for help since last April. Many of those calls and emails increased this year as residents grew more frustrated.
"People are still just holding on by a thread," Dawson said.
With his latest rejection letter, Dawson continues to rely on what he’s saved to pay for rent and food. He hopes this latest EDD nightmare is a wake-up call for state leaders.
"We think that we have the resources in place that we need for when there are emergencies, but not until we arrive do we really see how those things unfold," Dawson said.
His story — just a snapshot of the unemployment delays playing out across California.