The same state agency that presides over a broken call center and a glitch-ridden website established to serve unemployed workers battered by coronavirus-linked job losses is preparing to roll out a vast new benefits program Tuesday. “We are currently receiving more calls than we have capacity to answer” was the familiar yet dreary automated call center recording that greeted displaced workers Monday as they tried to reach the besieged state Employment Development Department. Workers also continued to encounter error messages, glitches, frozen screens, and login failures at the EDD’s unemployment insurance and benefits website. Even as it faces a pandemic of problems for the call center and the web site, the state EDD is preparing to roll out an ambitious new undertaking to deploy unemployment benefits to potentially millions of people such as gig workers who typically wouldn’t have qualified for regular jobless payments. The new program is called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and is a federally funded effort that the state EDD has scheduled to launch on Tuesday. “Unemployed Californians who are business owners, self-employed, independent contractors, or have a limited work history” are among those who will be able to qualify for the new benefits program, according to an EDD post on its site. The benefits for the new program will roll out in phases. The first phase will be payments of $167 per week for each week a person was unemployed from February 2 to March 28. The second phase will consist of payments of $167 plus a federally financed $600 per week for each week a person was unemployed from March 29 to July 25. The final phase will include payments of $167 per week, for each week from July 26 to December 26 that a person was unemployed. In all instances, a person would qualify only if they were unemployed or lost hours due to a coronavirus-related reason. However, the state system already has buckled beneath an avalanche of about 4 million unemployment claims unleashed primarily by the economic fallout from the coronavirus, raising questions about whether the beleaguered agency can handle a completely new program that has never before been attempted. Anthony Ieong, a Fremont resident who lost a job at a San Francisco hotel, is worried about how he will support his wife and family of four now that he is unemployed. He has been attempting to phone or apply online without success for days. “The EDD denied me even though I have had a regular schedule for years,” Ieong said. “Now I’ve just got to sit here and wait, wait, wait for the EDD. There really is not much we can do. We call the EDD, we can never get through. The website is a dead end.” Both Gov. Gavin Newsom and state Labor Secretary Julie Su, whose responsibilities include the EDD, have vowed to remedy the difficulties at the EDD unemployment insurance unit. “My team and I are working every single day on behalf of Californians,” Su said in an April 14 letter to discuss a variety of EDD-related issues, including the call center, computer system, and the new benefits for gig workers and others. “It doesn’t feel like enough, given the enormity of the challenges and the deep pain that people are feeling, but we are giving it everything we have.” On Monday, the EDD acknowledged the difficulties persist. “All of our phone systems are experiencing a high volume of calls, and we recognize that can be frustrating,” the EDD said in emailed comments. “We are working very diligently to continue to expand availability to answer more questions directly.” Those promises might provide only cold comfort to the several million workers who have lost their jobs in the wake of business shutdowns that state and local government agencies have imposed to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Monica Morris-Aranda, a San Jose resident, said she continues to attempt without success to reach a live person at the EDD and she also confirmed difficulties with attempting to navigate the electronic obstacles at the EDD site. Morris-Aranda lost her job at a high-end steakhouse in Palo Alto. “The EDD is incredibly incompetent,” Morris-Aranda said. “They want to start a new program, but it’s been weeks and they still can’t help people who have already filed for unemployment.” *By George Avalo via Mercury News*

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