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As unemployment reaches record levels in California due to the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newson on Wednesday signed an executive order to extend the hours of the Employment Development Department’s call center to meet an overwhelming demand.

The new hours, which begin Monday, will be from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week, Newsom said.

Currently, the call center is only operational from 8 a.m. to noon, Monday through Friday, and has been flooded with phone calls over the past month as many residents lost their jobs due to business closures and mass layoffs caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

In the last four weeks alone, 2.7 million Californians have filed for unemployment, creating a strain on the system and frustrating many who have tried and failed to obtain benefits.

“We are in the process right now of dealing with an unprecedented number of people making phone calls into our EDD,” Newsom said. “We’re trying to process these applications, and we’re trying to turn around those applications in real time.” 

The state has processed about a million or more payments a week but is looking to substantially increase that number in the next few weeks.

Last Sunday, unemployed Californians became eligible for an additional $600 in federal benefits, on top of what they already received from the state, under the $2.2 trillion stimulus package known as the CARES Act.

Newsom noted that on that day — which coincided with Easter, a day state employees had been given off — about 500 workers still showed up to their jobs to help disburse payments.

“They were able to process a couple hundred thousand distributions just on Easter Sunday to help people most at need in the state of California,” Newsom said. “They took the time to consider other people first, not just themselves, when they deserved that time off.” 

The governor applauded those employees, calling the work they did “heroic.”

For those who haven’t been able to sign up for benefits yet, they are retroactive, according to Newsom.

In addition to expanding the call center’s hours, the governor also announced a significant staffing increase at the EDD’s Unemployment Insurance Branch.

By Monday, there will be 1,340 additional employees, including 740 reassigned from the EDD and 600 others from across state government.

The state is also setting up a portal through the EDD to expedite unemployment benefits to the self-employed, gig workers and independent contractors.

Starting April 28, the agency will have a “one-stop shop” for benefits through the federal government’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, according to a news release from the governor’s office.

The program gives certain individuals up to 39 weeks of unemployment benefits retroactive to Feb. 2 for those impacted by the pandemic, and going through the week ending Dec. 31, 2020.

They too will qualify for the additional $600 payment through July 31.

Newsom explained that the delay is due to the state setting up the benefits in a “methodical and thoughtful” way that will allow them to go out between 24 and 48 hours, as opposed to the usual 21 days for regular unemployment insurance claims.

The governor also announced some economic aid for undocumented immigrants in the form of a $125 million disaster relief fund, about $75 million of which will come from California taxpayers.

About 150,000 undocumented workers in the state will receive one-time payment of $500, according to the governor.

He said the undocumented population makes up about 10% of the state’s workforce, with many employed in sectors deemed essential during the crisis, including health care, agriculture and food, and manufacturing. Undocumented workers paid $2.5 billion in state and local taxes last year, he said.

They are otherwise ineligible to receive funds from the CARES Act.

“This is a state that steps up always to support those in need regardless of status,” Newsom said.