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Guidance for CalWORKs Welfare-to-work policies during shelter-in-place

The California Department of Social Services (CDSS) issued new guidance to counties intended to help CalWORKs families maintain income during the COVID crisis. With most welfare offices closed to the public and staff working from home, many counties are short staffed. At the same time, counties are facing unprecedented requests for assistance and are prioritizing the processing of new applications for assistance.

The CDSS guidance gives counties some breathing room in how they administer the welfare-to work program, and also ensures CalWORKs families do not suffer a loss of grant income due to the inability to meet welfare-to-work requirements. Additionally, the guidance clarifies for counties and community colleges that they are to continue paying wages for subsidized employment and for work study while families shelter at home.

Counties are being instructed that CalWORKs recipients who cannot complete their welfare-to-work assignments due to COVID-19 should be granted good cause for not participating. Good cause means that the recipient is excused from performing work activities and ensures that the family will not receive a sanction for failing to meet work requirements. This is important because a sanction reduces the amount of the grant a family receives, making it harder to pay bills. Counties are also allowed to provide “blanket” good cause to all recipients required to do welfare-to-work. We urge counties to adopt this policy because it is both humane and realistic given the order from the Governor to shelter-in-place.

The CDSS guidance goes a step further and instructs counties to begin the “cure” process for recipients who are already sanctioned or who were previously not in compliance with work requirements but not yet sanctioned. Curing means the recipient agrees to meet the work requirement, usually by performing the activity they failed to perform, by participating in a different activity than before. While counties are not authorized to provide “blanket” cures, counties are permitted to provide cure plans in which good cause is provided as the cure plan. Once this is agreed to by the recipient, the grant is to be restored to the full amount. Because many recipients have no way to sign the cure plan electronically, CDSS is allowing counties to attest to the agreement of the recipient as an alternative. In short, this procedure will restore CalWORKs grants to their full value for sanctioned households. As many as 40,000 households could be impacted by this.

Finally, the CDSS guidance clarifies that recipients who were receiving wages through county funded subsidized employment or through community college provided work study may continue to be paid wages even if the recipient can no longer work due to COVID-19. In the case of work study, colleges are permitted to pay back wages to the date when the campus closed. This is important since many CalWORKs families depend on income from employment to pay rent and provide food for their families.

We want to acknowledge the work of CDSS, which continues to work with advocates and counties in a spirit of cooperation to help mitigate harm caused by the COVID pandemic. There will be more updates as the state begins the process of implementing provisions in the federal stimulus package.

The Governor’s Executive Order on Evictions: Why It Fails to Protect Tenants, and What Can Still Be Done to Provide Meaningful Protections

The Governor’s March 27th Executive Order N-37-20 is intended to be a delay—not a moratorium—on evictions. Unfortunately, it provides little practical help for renters during the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the Order, even tenants who have a COVID-related income loss and can meet the notice and documentation requirements of the Order can still be evicted. At best, the order extends the time period before they are physically locked out by the sheriff. Moreover, by relying on a flawed legal approach, the order will mislead tenants who have a real defense to the eviction, preventing them from responding in court in a timely manner.

The Executive Order is Not a Moratorium on Evictions

The Executive Order purports to extend by 60 days the time a tenant has to respond to a summons in an unlawful detainer (eviction) case filed by a landlord. However, that extension applies only for unlawful detainers based on nonpayment where the tenant (a “covered tenant”) has satisfied certain conditions:

  1. The tenant has a COVID-related loss of income;
  2. The tenant has notified the landlord within a reasonable time period not to exceed 7 days; and
  3. The tenant retains certain documentation of the COVID-related loss.

All other unlawful detainer cases are unaffected by the Order. This includes cases where the tenant can’t meet the documentation requirements, evictions alleging other breaches of a lease, no fault evictions, and others. These evictions can move forward so long as the courts are open.

The Executive Order Provides No Defense to an Eviction Even for Covered Tenants

Even for tenants who can demonstrate a COVID-related loss of income and do everything required of them, while the Executive Order is in effect a landlord can still:

  1. Issue a three-day notice demanding the tenant pay the rent or vacate their unit.
  2. Refuse to accept partial or full late rent payments after the three-day notice has expired.
  3. File an eviction action against that tenant in court.
  4. Serve the action on the tenant, requiring them to file a written response in court within five days.
  5. Obtain a default judgement against the tenant if they fail to respond within five days of being served.
  6. Obtain an order from the court directing the sheriff to remove the tenant from their home.

In addition, in some cases, a tenant may even be locked out by the sheriff, if the local sheriff is continuing to enforce evictions.

The Executive Order is Legally Flawed, Confusing to Tenants, and May Result in More Evictions

The Executive Order relies on two approaches to prevent tenants from losing their homes, both of which are legally insufficient:

  1. First, it extends the time for some tenants to answer an eviction action. This provision cannot legally or practically be implemented by the courts. When a landlord files an eviction action, the court issues a summons. If a tenant does not respond to the summons within five days, the landlord can immediately file a request for entry of default judgment. In this situation, California Code of Civil Procedure Section 1169 mandates that the court clerk issue a judgment for possession. This is a ministerial act by the clerk; if the defendant has not responded by the deadline, the clerk MUST issue the judgment. Court clerks do not have the authority to judge the underlying facts. Even if they had that authority, they would have nothing except the landlord’s initial filing to review, which would not include any information as to whether the tenant is a covered tenant under the Order.Thus, clerks will have no way of knowing whether a tenant is entitled to more time to respond pursuant to the Executive Order. Faced with a request by a landlord to enter a default judgment, it is unclear what the clerk will do. One very real possibility is they will enter a default judgment on the sixth day, as the law requires them to do, even though the Order purports to give covered tenants 60 more days. This will irreparably prejudice covered tenants who may, based on misinformation in news reports and pronouncements by the Governor’s office, believe either that there is an eviction moratorium in place or that they at least had more time to respond.
  2. Second, the Executive Order directs sheriffs not to enforce lockouts for covered tenants. When a judgment is entered for the landlord in an eviction case, the landlord can request that the court issue a writ of possession—the lockout order that the sheriff will post on the tenant’s door giving them five days to move out or be physically removed. The Executive Order does not sufficiently protect tenants during this step of the eviction process either. It is impossible for the sheriff to know from looking at the writ (or anything else) whether the tenant is a covered tenant. All they have is a valid judgment from the court and a writ directing them to enforce it. Moreover, even if somehow the sheriff knew the details of the particular tenant’s situation, the idea that the sheriff, based on facts that have presumably already been adjudicated, could second-guess the judge in the case and refuse to enforce an order of the court presents troubling separation of powers issues. Presumably, many sheriffs will avoid that legal peril and simply enforce the order. The result: covered tenants could be locked out by the sheriff, even during the pendency of the Order.

In addition to failing to achieve the goal of preventing COVID-related nonpayment evictions, the Executive Order may produce the unintended consequence of driving tenants, landlords, attorneys, and witnesses to court at a time when all residents in our state are meant to be sheltering in place. Many tenants covered by the Order but concerned about the confusion and uncertainty it creates may still choose to file an answer to the eviction action within the five-day period listed on the summons. In that case, the court is mandated to set the case for trial within 20 days of the landlord requesting it, unless the court’s trials have been suspended during the pandemic. In other words, covered tenants who have done everything asked of them could swiftly find themselves in an unlawful detainer trial for which they are required to be present.

Similarly, the many tenants who should have had more time to respond based on the Order but who have received a default judgment and a sheriff’s lockout notice will file motions to set aside the default judgment. This too will mean both tenants and landlords flooding the courts over evictions that the Executive Order failed to effectively put on hold.

California Still Needs Real Eviction Protections in the Interest of Public Health and Basic Fairness

We have heard over and over again that staying in one’s home is the most important things people who have housing can do to stop this pandemic. Allowing evictions to proceed is inconsistent with this directive. The state needs meaningful protections from eviction during this time to ensure that California can meet this public health challenge head-on and protect residents at all income levels. The virus has elevated the need to protect tenants from displacement and there are still a number of actions that can be taken to avoid the economic and social ripple effects that a wave of evictions will create.

We continue our call for Governor Newsom to enact a strong moratorium on all evictions, regardless of the underlying basis, during this public health crisis. Only those evictions meant to address a concrete and significant safety concern should be allowed to move forward during this time. The Governor has the power to accomplish this by taking the following actions for the duration of the crisis:

  1. Suspend Code of Civil Procedure Section 1161, 1161a and 1946.1, except where a landlord seeks to recover possession under Section 1161(4) of the Code of Civil Procedure to address a specific, immediate, and present danger related to health and safety, such as the grounds listed for a protective order in Section 6250 of the Family Code.
  2. Suspend the portion of the Ellis Act that authorizes a filing of notice with the local government and with tenants.
  3. Toll the notice period for all notices that have not yet expired under Code of Civil Procedure Sections 1161, 1161a, 1946.1; Government Code Section 7060.4; and Civil Code Section 798.55(b).
  4. Suspend the calendar preference for unlawful detainer matters under Code of Civil Procedure section 1179a, except those under section 1161(4) as outlined above.
  5. Suspend the five-day summons under Code of Civil Procedure 1167.
  6. Prohibit execution of a writ of possession by the sheriff during the emergency.
  7. Clarify that any action by a local government that provides more protections against eviction is not preempted.

Taking these actions would extend similar protections to renters as have been given to homeowners and would preserve the ability of tenants to follow public health directives and shelter in their homes. These actions will create the certainty and stability we need to ensure that no tenants are at immediate risk of losing their housing while we work to find longer-term solutions for handling unpaid rent, providing economic support for both tenants and landlords moving forward, and ensuring that tenants can remain stably housed even after the immediate crisis has abated.

California’s Franchise Tax Board to halt debt collection immediately

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

The Debt Free Justice California coalition and partners commend State Controller Betty Yee for halting debt collection efforts in light of the unprecedented public health and economic crisis.

Sacramento, CA— State Controller Betty Yee has suspended the Franchise Tax Board’s (FTB) collection on debt imposed by state and local governments, including the juvenile and criminal legal systems and superior courts (traffic violations, infractions). This policy will go into effect immediately.

California is the first state to enact such a policy.

Even before COVID-19, Black and Brown families and low-income families across the state were struggling with the high cost of living and deepening economic inequality. The COVID-19 pandemic will result in further loss of critical income and shelter for low-income people, particularly people of color and women who are disproportionately represented in jobs that will be lost or cut in this period, and who also disproportionately pay for incarceration and other government-imposed debt

Under state law, the FTB intercepts tax refunds, garnishes wages, and levies bank accounts to collect debt imposed by state and local entities. In practice, collection by the FTB can disrupt a family’s ability to pay rent, keep the lights on, feed their children, and get medical care.

For the last few years, Tiffine Hansbrough lost her state tax refund because of outstanding juvenile fines and fees for one of her children. “It’s devastating,” she said, because you are relying on that money to take care of your family and when it doesn’t come, it increases your stress and financial burden.”

Continuing debt collection would be in direct contravention of federal and state efforts to build up economic reserves. The federal government will provide direct cash payments to people across the country under the CARE Act and many families rely on the Earned Income Tax Credit every year. While federal legislation has outlined protections against federal intercept, it is silent on intercept by states. Without action by Yee, the FTB would have been able to intercept these payments.

Jonetta Hall, a mother of one who is currently living in a homeless shelter for families in Sacramento, says, “Having my taxes intercepted meant that I couldn’t pay back bills that had been piling up and things my family needed. I’m happy for other people like me that will be able to use this money for food, gas to go to the doctors, and other things they need right now.”

That is why Yee’s decision to stop collection efforts by the FTB is key to Californians’ ability to weather  the  COVID-19  crisis,  and  to  ensure  Black  and  Brown  communities  are  not further marginalized economically. Her leadership, anchored by Senators Mitchell and Durazo, is commended.

According to State Controller Betty Yee, “I recognize the difficult times many Californians are facing in light of this crisis. By using my authority, I hope to relieve people of the hardship of making ongoing debt payments so that families can focus on what is needed right now—to stay healthy and safe.”

Senator Maria Elena Durazo, author of Senate Bill 1290, says: “Working and poor families need relief. Collecting debt from people on the edge is not acceptable, especially during an unprecedented world crisis. I will continue to fight for debt free justice for California’s youth and I commend State Controller Betty Yee for taking immediate action to protect vital financial resources for families who need it most.”

Debt Free Justice California and its allies have also submitted a call to the Governor, asking that he order counties and courts to stop assessing and collecting all government-imposed debt and that he commit to not signing any legislation that would add additional monetary burdens during this time.

In the meantime, advocates like Kent Mendoza-Morales from the Anti-Recidivism Coalition hope local jurisdictions will follow suit: “California is experiencing a pandemic that is affecting our workforce and many formerly incarcerated people. Having to pay government debt during a time when work and supportive services have come to a halt, is an extraordinary burden on a vulnerable community. We hope counties and courts across the state will follow the Controller’s lead in ending collection activity at the local level and by private collection agencies.”

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, out of recognition that administrative fees levied by the criminal legal system further exasperated racial and economic injustice, many counties and courts across the state ended collection of juvenile and criminal fees, including referrals of outstanding amounts to the Franchise Tax Board. The on the ground work that movement organizations and advocates have already put in allowed Debt Free Justice California coalition partners to move quickly on working with Controller Betty Yee on this historic order.

According to Senator Holly Mitchell, author of Senate Bills 144 and 1290: “This move to pause government owed fees by State Controller Betty Yee will relieve families from going into debt and will prevent eviction. Providing relief gives families more power during these unprecedented times. I have led the way in working toward providing fee relief for families living in poverty. And now is the time to erase all outstanding debt for families affected by the criminal justice system. I will work on permanently eliminating back owed fees this year through SB 144 which ends criminal administrative fees for adults and through SB 1290 with Senator Durazo discharging administrative fees for juveniles.”

The COVID-19 crisis has illuminated fractures in the system that have long been unjust. We applaud the efforts to minimize the potential escalating economic harm caused by this emergency and we are hopeful that the State will not see these measures as temporary but as an opportunity to re-envision what a more just and equitable California will look like post-crisis. Now is the time to be visionary as this will likely not be the last crisis with this sort of catastrophic potential.

Contact:

Anthony Robles, Organizer, Youth Justice Coalition, 626-838-9450, anthony[at]youth4justice.org

Jessica Bartholow, Policy Advocate, Western Center on Law & Poverty, 916-400-1948, jbartholow[at]wclp.org

Stephanie Campos-Bui, Supervising Attorney, UC Berkeley Policy Advocacy Clinic, 909-568-7410, scamposbui[at]law.berkeley.edu

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Debt Free Justice California is a multi-regional California-based coalition focused on putting a stop to the unfair ways the criminal legal system drains wealth from vulnerable communities. The coalition is comprised of legal advocates, policy experts, and most importantly movement building organizations led by impacted people. For more information visit: https://ebclc.org/cadebtjustice/about/.

Los Angeles will mirror New York as coronavirus surges, Newsom and Garcetti warn

“Renter groups and some Democratic lawmakers were disappointed by the limited action in the middle of a statewide mandate that residents remain at home. They said Newsom’s directive fails to protect renters evicted for other reasons, still allowing landlords to pursue evictions next month and those renters to be locked out as soon as the emergency is lifted.

‘It does very little to protect tenants against evictions, and I think essentially just kicks the can down the road for some folks,” said Sasha Harnden, a lawyer with the Western Center on Law and Poverty. ”

Analysis of Federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act

Today, Congress passed a $2 trillion aid package, the third piece of federal legislation to address the COVID-19 pandemic. While this aid package includes some direct payments, expanded unemployment benefits, and additional help for low-income communities and the organizations that serve them, it was passed without important benefits and considerations raised to address concerns for the poorest Americans, especially those who are living in deep poverty, people who are disabled or advanced in age, and people who are undocumented. The bill invests significantly more government aid for corporate America than it does for the people hit hardest by the crisis. We are hopeful that the fourth aid package, expected to be worked on by leaders while Congress is in recess for the next couple of weeks, will address these significant gaps.

Western Center is working hard to make sure that both the missed opportunities in the CARES Act and additional investments are considered in the next COVID bill, and we look forward to working with California’s Senators and our Congressional Delegation to make sure that happens.

FINANCIAL SECURITY

The CARES Act expands eligibility and benefits for unemployment insurance, but it does not provide assistance for states to manage the cost of rising TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) caseloads, as was done in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). TANF, known as CalWORKs in California, serves the poorest families with children by providing them a basic needs grant, work training and support, homelessness prevention, and subsidized employment. It is critical that Congress and the President provide increased funding for state TANF programs in the fourth COVID package. Unlike many states, California spends the bulk of its combined federal and state welfare funds on direct cash aid and supports to families. Still, it only serves approximately 60 percent of eligible families with a benefit, and in most cases, isn’t even above half of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). As the needs increase and caseloads rise, the state may find it difficult to maintain the program at its current level. While California could receive about $1.6 billion for Supplemental Security Income recipients, and another $3.5 billion for the CalFresh (SNAP) caseload, we will need to keep working to make sure that national TANF investments include additional resources for low-income families to weather this storm.

The stimulus plan includes one-time income for many families and individuals, including very low income households. Unfortunately, the bill does not provide funding for households where one adult does not have a Social Security number (SSN). This means many households who pay taxes and may have American citizens or Legal Permanent Residents (LPR) in their households will receive nothing, despite the fact that payroll taxes are taken from their checks. Congress must address this gross inequity in the next COVID package; it will disproportionately deny aid to low-income workers of color, many of whom are essential workers on the front line of our service sectors.

For those families who are eligible, they will receive $1,200 payments for each adult and $500 for each child under the rebate program. These payments are available to households that filed a federal tax return for 2018 or 2019 even if the household payed no taxes. This is important because households with incomes under $25,000 are not required to file tax returns since they have no federal tax liability, so many do not routinely file taxes. As a result, many low-income families may not get a check unless they file a tax return by July 15th (the new extended tax filing deadline). This could prove challenging since many Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) centers and other tax preparers are closed during shelter in place, and most of them would have finalized 2020 activities as of April 15th, the regular tax filing deadline.

Currently, the IRS has information on its website on free options for filing taxes. The IRS is required to do a public education campaign on the rebates, which should provide more information on what people need to do to get the rebates. The federal government has discretion on how to get payments to people, so what the options are for non-filers (beyond filing a regular return) is yet to be determined and might differ for different groups. California will need to explore how it can assist low income households with filing returns so they can secure the resources needed to meet their basic needs. A summary of the rebate process can be found here.

Both the IRS and the state Franchise Tax Board (FTB) have long utilized tax intercepts to collect unpaid taxes from those getting tax refunds and Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). According to the Tax Policy Center, the IRS will not be intercepting rebate checks to collect unpaid taxes. The Center also reports that the IRS has temporarily suspended interception of EITC payments for unpaid federal taxes. Click here for more on the IRS policy changes.

And today, after receiving a request from the Debt Free Justice Coalition, Western Center, and our Legal Services Allies, the FTB has announced it will use existing authority to immediately stop tax intercepts and all other debt collection practices (including bank levies and wage garnishments) for state government debt, with the exception of child support.

The CARES Act includes $900 million to help lower income households heat and cool their homes through the existing Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), and another $1 Billion to Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) to help communities address the consequences of increasing unemployment and economic disruption. These are flexible funds to alleviate poverty, so there will be great variation from community to community for how these funds are used.

FOOD SECURITY

The Cares Act provides $8.8 billion for child nutrition programs in the form of additional funding for food purchases and demonstration projects to increase flexibility for schools; $15.51 billion for SNAP; $100 million for food distribution to low-income households living on Indian reservations and participating Indian Tribal Organizations; $200 million for U.S. territories that cannot access SNAP (Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and American Samoa), in addition to annual block grant funding; and $450 million for commodities and distribution of emergency food assistance through community partners, including food banks.

The CARES Act investments in food security mainly support administration of existing benefits, and does not establish new benefits. It will help fund H.R. 6201 implementation, support caseworker staff needed to keep up with increases in applications and caseload, and fund waivers and other accommodations necessary to comply with COVID-19 stay-at-home orders and the impending recession that our economy will face. This is important not only because this workforce will be needed to help low-income Californians meet their basic needs, but also because the county social worker workforce is made up primarily of women of color.

We are disappointed the bill doesn’t include a needed benefit increase and pause on the implementation of Trump Administration cuts to SNAP food stamp benefits. We are committed to working with local, state, and national partners, as well as California’s U.S. Senators and our Congressional Delegation, to make sure the expected fourth COVID bill includes these investments and others that are necessary to address acute levels of hunger caused by extended school feeding and congregate meal closures, and prolonged stay-at-home orders.

HEALTH

Through the passage of the CARES Act, private health plans must cover COVID-19 testing free of charge. The CARES Act also requires health plans to cover vaccinations at no-cost when it becomes available. For older adults and individuals with disabilities, the CARES Act enhances several Medicare benefits, including coverage of COVID-19 vaccination when it becomes available, more flexible provision of telehealth services, and a three-month supply of prescription drugs. For Medi-Cal beneficiaries who receive unemployment benefits under this act, these payments will not affect their Medi-Cal eligibility.

The CARES Act requires price transparency for COVID-19 testing but does not place a limit on testing costs which may skyrocket as the demand for testing increases and testing supplies remain low. Consumers will also face challenges to accessing affordable coverage for COVID-19 treatment. The CARES Act contains no prohibitions on surprise billing, such as additional costs patients often incur when using emergency care services, and no measures addressing the high out-of-pocket costs that many patients will have to pay for COVID-19 treatment. Even with this third emergency act, the federal government still has not authorized state Medicaid programs to cover COVID-19 treatment for those who are uninsured and undocumented.

HOUSING

The CARES Act provides for (1) a forbearance period for borrowers with Federally-backed loans who are financially impacted by COVID-19, (2) a moratorium on foreclosures of Federally-backed loans, and (3) a moratorium on evictions from public housing or housing with Federally-backed mortgages. 

Under the CARES Act, borrowers with Federally-backed mortgages may request a forbearance on the loan if they are experiencing a financial hardship during the COVID-19 emergency. The forbearance can last for 180 days and may be extended at the request of the borrower. No fees, penalties, or additional interest will accrue for borrowers during the period of forbearance. The CARES Act also provides a moratorium on foreclosures of federally-backed mortgages. Borrowers with Federally-backed multifamily mortgage loans may obtain forbearance of 30 days, which may be extended, and during the period of forbearance, are prohibited from evicting a household solely for non-payment. Importantly, the Act provides a 120-day moratorium on eviction filings for most federally subsidized rental housing, as well as for any housing that has a Federally-backed mortgage or multifamily mortgage loan if the eviction is based on non-payment.  Borrowers curious about their mortgages can look up the information through Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or by contacting your own mortgage company.

The CARES Act also dedicates $4 billion to the expansion of the existing Emergency Solutions Grant program intended to be used for people experiencing or who are at risk of homelessness. These funds can increase shelter capacity, allow communities to reconfigure shelter space to adhere to physical distancing guidelines, deliver medical care to people who acquire the virus or may be at higher risk, and provide short-term rental or utility assistance so that people who have lost jobs or income don’t also lose their housing.  Although the funds can be used for emergency assistance, the needs of shelters (and creating alternatives to current shelter options) are so great that there is unlikely to be sufficient funds to address all the emergency needs that come with such high rates of joblessness. It is unclear how California will use this funding.

Bay Area low-income seniors struggle to access food during coronavirus

“A big part of the anti-hunger emergency food safety net traditionally has been run by people who are older,” said Jessica Bartholow, legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “All the programs, church pantries, soup kitchens are staffed by volunteers who are now being told to stay home. There is a real crumbling of the natural infrastructure of California anti-hunger assistance programs.”

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Coronavirus: National Guard fills critical volunteer shortage at Silicon Valley food bank

“Not every food bank within the six counties has been willing to accept this help, though, as some declined the Guard’s offer due to concerns about perceptions from the immigrant community, said Jessica Bartholow, legislative advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

“They come in uniform,” she said. “It can be startling if you come from a country where a uniform represents martial law.”

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