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Amid coronavirus, California unemployment agency to increase hotline hours for claims

A man looks at job postings at the One-Stop Career Center in East Los Angeles. With jobless claims skyrocketing, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Friday the state is expanding its call center hours.
(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

Facing public outcry over limited hours for jobless claim processing help by phone, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Friday that he directed California’s unemployment agency to keep lines open until 5 p.m. or longer.

In response, the state Employment Development Department said that it is shifting workers from other jobs and has set a target date of April 20 to change its call center hours from 8 a.m. to noon to 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Californians out of work following the state’s implementation of a stay-at-home order to fight the coronavirus have flooded the Capitol and social media in the last week with complaints of having to make dozens of calls to the state Employment Development Department and failing to connect to a service representative.

The EDD has been operating its call center that helps jobless residents from 8 a.m. to noon since 2013 as the growing economy has reduced the number of people seeking unemployment benefits.

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But the call center has been inundated during the COVID-19 pandemic as more than 2.5 million Californians have filed applications for unemployment benefits in the last month, setting new records for call load, the governor said.

California’s unemployment rate will register double digits through 2021 and may be as high as 8.5% two years from now, UCLA economists predict.

Newsom said Friday that he has directed California Labor Secretary Julie Su to expand the hours to at least 5 p.m., “but we believe we have a capacity to go even further.”

“We at least have new expanded hours happening very shortly,” Newsom added. “Hundreds of additional personnel are being redeployed to make that happen.”

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Debra Natera, a Colton resident who was laid off from her job as a legal assistant on March 17, said it took her four days to get someone at EDD on the phone.

Other jobless people she has talked to are worried about being able to pay their rent and buy groceries.

“We understand that EDD has done their part and that they’re swamped,” Natera said. “If people were able to speak to EDD regarding any concerns, we would feel more at ease instead of this constant wondering what’s going on.”

The governor’s decision was also welcomed by Maurice Emsellem, director of the Fair Chance Program at the National Employment Law Project in Berkeley.

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“Expanding the phone hours provides a critical lifeline for the large numbers of workers in California, including many immigrants, low-income and older workers, who often have the hardest time accessing or navigating the online claims process,” Emsellem said.

However, Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) said expanding the call center hours should only be the first step to fixing problems with the hotline.

“They have to answer them, not make people wait on hold for hours, and when they tell people they will get a call back they’ll actually get a call back,” Patterson said. “People are becoming desperate. What they need from the EDD is real help on the other end of the line and not to be lost in the bureaucracy.”

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Unemployment claims have skyrocketed nationally as most states have shut down large segments of their economies to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

The governor announced Thursday that Californians whose unemployment claims have been processed will start getting an extra $600 on Sunday in their weekly benefit payment as a result of a federal coronavirus relief package approved by Congress.

The surge in unemployment claims has tested the capacity of the EDD to issue checks to the newly jobless within 21 days as it has in past years, but the state has shifted some 850 state employees from other jobs to respond.

“We still believe we can cut those checks within that traditional timeline despite this unprecedented surge in requests and applications,” Newsom said Friday during his daily news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic.


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