Now many are saddled with debt even as they start returning to work.
The Employment Development Department is whittling away at the backlog but to this day, nearly 180,000 cases are still sitting in limbo.
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Among them, a South Bay man whose claim sat for so long, it got thrown out by mistake. Now he's facing months of bureaucratic hurdles - and a huge debt.
Jacob Wright of Santa Cruz lost his house cleaning job when the pandemic hit.
"I got a call saying they didn't need me anymore because of COVID," Wright said.
Unemployment kept him going - until EDD cut him off in March.
"I'm struggling as it is, really bad," he said.
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Without saying why, EDD suddenly required him to verify his address in order to renew his claim. Right away, Wright uploaded his driver's license, cell phone bill, rental agreement, even his voter registration.
EDD said that was plenty of proof... but still no payments.
"They just kept telling me I need to wait, I need to wait... Oh it's gonna come, it's gonna come," recounted Wright.
It didn't come.
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Wright tried to find house cleaning jobs, but concern over the Delta variant made folks reluctant to let workers in their homes.
"I had to sell my car, I had to sell my computer," he said. "I had to borrow money from my gramma. I hate having to owe money to my gramma. I owe her about $6,000."
Finally Wright emailed EDD, asking "Where's my payment?" Then, to his shock, EDD admitted it waited so long to approve his claim, it was mistakenly rejected.
"I couldn't believe it when I read it," he said.
The EDD reply said: "We unfortunately did not respond on time to verify your California residency."
Because of that, EDD said Wright's claim was disqualified, and sent to the appeals board. It now awaits a hearing which can take months.
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"I have to wait for a judge to either accept or decline," said Wright.
All of that just to confirm his address, which has been the same for years.
EDD admitted: "The appeal process is tedious, which is why we ask you to be patient a little longer."
"I'm never gonna depend on EDD ever again in my life," Wright said.
We asked EDD why it let Wright's claim lapse even though he verified his address and EDD had told him over the phone he met all requirements.
EDD said it could not discuss a specific case due to privacy restrictions, but "we apologize if we haven't provided a clear status of an individual's claim, as in Mr. Wright's case."
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EDD also said it is working on offering a "claim tracker" to allow unemployed workers to follow their cases through the process - like a FedEx package.
EDD said it would contact Wright directly, though he says he has heard nothing from the agency. He's worried about his debts to friends and relatives.
"I owe my gramma $6,000 and it's important to pay her back. She's retired, on a fixed income and she needs her money. I don't know how I'm going to pay her back if I don't get this money," he said.
Even getting back to work leaves debt so high, he worries it'll haunt the rest of his life.
"I'll be in a big hole that's how it affects my life... it'll take me years to get out of it," he said.
If you're one of the thousands who are still waiting for payments, you will get back pay for any benefits you should have received up to now, that includes the extra $300 per week bonus that expired September 4. Those benefits are calculated and added for any weeks you were eligible, prior to September 4.
Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.
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