California unveils new benefits for unemployed, undocumented
Julie Su, secretary for the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency announces new unemployment resources in California April 15.

The state of California is fielding 2.7 million unemployment claims filed in the last four weeks alone, putting strain on phone lines and processing times as residents lose hours and pay due to the statewide stay at home order issued last month due to the coronavirus.

But applying for unemployment is about to get easier, officials said Wednesday.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order this week to extend the state’s Employment Development Department’s call hours. The department has been operating its call center since 2013 from 8 a.m. to noon, Monday through Friday. Now those phone lines will stay open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

More than 700 public employees have also been trained to take on the “record call volumes,” on the unemployment line in recent weeks. On Monday, 600 more workers will be added to the department.

“I just want to acknowledge that there is frustration in California over unemployment insurance benefits,” said Julie Su, secretary for the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency. “The governor’s executive order today is going to allow us to open up the hours of the call center so that those of you who are seeking a live person to talk to to get help will be able to do that much more easily.”

Meanwhile, state officials are gearing up to roll out a program, funded by the federal CARES Act, to offer self-employed and independent contractors unemployment benefits starting April 28.

The State’s Employment Development Department will set up a “one-stop shop” for small business and independent workers that have lost work due to COVID-19, officials said Wednesday. So-called “gig workers,” are also eligible for payments.

The funds, which will come out of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, will be applied retroactively as far back as the first week of February, if a worker can prove they’d lost work due to the coronavirus at that time, Su said.

Payments will be issued within 48 hours after an application is submitted, officials said.

“Many Californians are one paycheck away from losing their homes or from being able to put food on their tables, and COVID-19 has only made these challenges worse,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said. “California is focused on getting relief dollars and unemployment assistance in the hands of those who need it as quickly as possible.”

The governor also announced a first-in-the-nation disaster relief assistance fund specifically for undocumented immigrants that have had their health and income upended by COVID-19.

Help for the undocumented

The $125 million fund will be seeded by philanthropic partners, which have agreed to raise $50 million, and the state, which will contribute $75 million.

“Regardless of your status — documented or undocumented — there are people in need and this is a state that steps up always to support those regardless of status,” Newsom said. “Ten percent of California’s workforce is undocumented … and an over-representation of that workforce is undocumented in the areas that are so essential to meeting the needs of tens of millions of Californians today.”

Undocumented residents are not eligible for state unemployment nor federal stimulus payments.

About 150,000 undocumented California residents can apply starting next month to get a one-time $500 payment per adult, with a maximum of $1,000 per household to help with COVID-19 impacts, regardless of income.

Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees is administering the new fund, known as the California Immigrant Resilience Fund. So far, $5.5 million has been raised from the Emerson Collective, Blue Shield of California Foundation, The California Endowment, The James Irvine Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and an anonymous donor and other donors.

“With the federal government and so many states failing to provide undocumented immigrants the economic and health supports all Americans deserve, I hope that corporations, foundations and individuals across the country will join us in providing the emergency relief these members of our community need to weather this challenging time.”Laurene Powell Jobs, founder and president of the Emerson Collective said in a statement Wednesday.

Donations to the fund can be made at www.immigrantfundCA.org. The state has also published an immigrant resource guide to COVID-19 assistance.

The news comes a day after Newsom unveiled his plan to “reopen the economy” by lifting some of the restrictions in the statewide stay-at-home order. In short, businesses will likely be required to remain shuttered for at least two more weeks, and state officials are expecting a gradual return to normal.

Follow along with San José Spotlight’s real-time coronavirus coverage on our LIVE BLOG here.

Contact Janice Bitters at [email protected] or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.

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