Rapid Response: Putting Workers First During a Crisis

By Nica C. Tanaka

Since March of 2020, California workers have endured the economic blows of Covid-19. Closures both permanent and temporary have eliminated thousands of jobs forcing families and individuals to find immediate ways to survive. The demand for Unemployment Insurance (UI) peaked and over a year later, California workers are still staggering to return to their jobs as it was before the pandemic.

Over 16.4 million UI claims have been processed by EDD by the end of 2020. A monumental number of California workers were displaced from their jobs. Many were overwhelmed and anxious about the UI process. Claimants for the first time included many self-employed workers who became eligible to receive UI benefits through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). Countless of questions circulated while workers found themselves stuck on their UI benefits portal online. How do I apply for UI? What information do I submit? Why is my payment pending? What is UI? Who can apply for it?

When workers are laid off, California’s Rapid Response system kicks in. Rapid Response is a workforce development service for individuals facing a temporary or permanent layoff. Through this system, workers will gain access to professionals, resources, and job centers that will help them transition after a traumatic job loss. Resources provided in a Rapid Response event includes information on health care post layoff, financial preparedness, job search assistance, employer matching, and most critical of all during the Covid-19 pandemic – information on Unemployment Insurance from an EDD representative.

One of the main areas of work of the Workforce & Economic Development Program (WED) of the California Labor Federation is to provide Rapid Response services to union members across the state. Throughout the pandemic, WED staff worked tirelessly to connect unions and laid off members to local job centers and EDD representatives so workers can get assistance and ask questions.

After coordinating multiple Rapid Response events during the pandemic, a need was identified – there had to be a hub where workers and unions can visit to find information, ask questions, and get assistance on confusing UI questions. The result was the creation of the very first union Rapid Response website: unionrapidresponse.org. Today, workers and unions in California can rely on unionrapidresponse.org to find the nearest Rapid Response event happening near them, find a job center, and have direct contact to WED staff to get further assistance.

Another result of the pandemic was the creation of a UI-Member-to-Member forum: a worker-run helpline that happened every other Wednesday since May of 2020. Workers from various industries called-in via zoom to raise their hand and ask each other questions on the ever updating and confusing process of Unemployment Insurance. The forum became a place of support for workers; a friendly gathering of union members looking forward to return to work. A year after the first forum was live, participating unions took over the helpline from WED and they promised to continue to service their own members as the economy prepares to reopen widely. Looking forward, these unions envision the helpline to transform into another version of member engagement for their own union activities. The lesson learned here is immeasurable: There is organizing power in Rapid Response because it puts workers first during a crisis.

For unions needing Rapid Response services, please contact rapidresponse@calaborfed.org or fill out this form to contact a WED staff. For workers needing to find the nearest job center and want to join a Rapid Response event near them, visit this calendar.

Pandemic or no pandemic, Rapid Response is available to all working families. Its effectiveness relies on the agency of all partners – unions, workforce development systems, community allies, and even businesses. With deep desire and focused concern, unions can be leaders in Rapid Response. Let us not wait for another pandemic to happen. Unions can respond now.