(KPIX 5) — More than 10 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits in the last two weeks of March and some experts say that number could double in April. California’s Employment Development Department says it’s doing the best it can with a historic surge in claims. But KPIX talked to some people who said they running out of patience.

Jonnie Dukes has been calling the EDD up to 40 times a day. Chris Webb chalked up more than 100 calls on a single day. But trying to get through on the EDD’s main phone line is next to impossible.

All of EDD’s America’s Job Centers, where people used to be able to go for advice, have closed. EDD wants everyone to apply online. But what about when you have a problem?

“There is a wrong zip code on my form,” said Kirsten Peters. She’s a floral arranger at Beau Fleurs in Napa. She applied online when she got laid off two weeks ago but now worries the wrong information will delay her claim. “I have bills to pay. My rent is due,” said Peters.

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Jonnie Dukes lost his job as a bartender at Steelhead Brewery in Burlingame. He needs help on some questions in the application. But EDD’s main telephone line is only staffed from 8 a.m. to noon.

“Why are they only open four hours a day during a pandemic? We’re all unemployed and we can’t get through to the main agency that is trying to help us!” said Dukes.

“We have to pull some people off the phone in order to get these benefits,” said Loree Levy with the EDD. She says staff is grappling with a staggering new workload. EDD received 878,000 claims during the last week of March, up 370% from the week before.

The Department’s website just got a major update to make it easier for the huge influx of new applicants affected by COVID-19 to file online.

“If you can’t get in in the any one certain time, try again a little later, it’s operating,” said Levy.

All three frustrated applicants who spoke to KPIX are classified as employees, and will eventually get covered. But Levy says it will take longer for the self-employed.

The $2 trillion Federal Cares Act signed into law on March 24 allows independent contractors to obtain unemployment insurance during the coronavirus pandemic, but Levy says the funds aren’t flowing yet. “It normally takes several months to a year or so to set up anything that comes out from new legislation. We’re trying to do this in a couple of days,” said Levy.

Chris Webb finally did get through to a live EDD representative. He also used to work at Steelhead Brewery as well as being a DJ and driving for Lyft and Uber. He says he got help, but not much sympathy.

“My wife has also been unemployed. When I got through I wanted to check on her status, too, and he said I’ll have to call back.”

The EDD is hiring to help take up the historic new workload. KPIX found 48 job postings at latest count. But Levy said unemployment insurance is a complex program. New employees have to train for at least six months.

Juliette Goodrich

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