VANCOUVER -- Many businesses are struggling to stay open during the COVID-19 pandemic as people are told to self-isolate.

Hundreds of thousands of people have already been given layoff notices, leading to what's being called a 'historic" number of employment income applications across the country.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed at a press conference Friday that there have been half a million EI applications this week, a massive jump compared to the 27,000 applications received this time last year.

“I know people are anxious to get the help they deserve and our government is working as fast as possible to support them,” Trudeau said. “This is of course an unprecedented situation and it’s putting a lot of pressure on our system, but we’re on it.”

Employment lawyer Sara Forte said people should not wait if they are currently eligible for EI.

“You can imagine the system is going to get backlogged. So what I would say is, if you're in that sort of first tier of people who already are eligible for EI based on the current criteria, get your applications in now,” she told CTV News.

Workers are eligible if they have had seven straight days of no work and no pay – also known as an interruption of earnings – and have worked at least 700 hours in the last 52 weeks, according to Forte Law.

Trudeau’s government introduced $27 billion in financial support for workers and businesses earlier this week.

Those unemployed workers who would not otherwise qualify for EI could get coverage under the new emergency support benefit.

There's also the emergency care benefit, which is for workers who are off because they are sick, caring for someone who is sick or looking after children who are not in school, but have not lost enough income to be eligible for EI sickness benefits.

The government did not provide a timeline as to when cheques would be in the mail, but said applications will be made available in April.

Forte said despite the new initiatives, there may still be some workers who fall through the cracks.

“There's so many layers to that I don't think it would be possible to create a system that would catch every single person who's performing work for money in this province,” she said.

She said EI is an option for many people who plan on returning to their jobs once the outbreak goes away, but workers also have the right to refuse getting laid off.

“The other option is that the company would have to terminate your employment, and then provide you some severance pay. So that's something that I think every employee who's being laid off should think about,” she explained.

‘It’s a crisis’: More layoffs coming

Unifor, which has 300,000 members represented in 20 different sectors, said casino workers and those in the hospitality industry are hardest hit in B.C.

“We're talking about layoffs of about 95 per cent in many of these places. They're skeleton crews that are scheduled around to sort of keep the lights on,” said Gavin McGarrigle, Unifor’s western regional director.

He said the future looks bleak for the union, anticipating a third of its members across Canada will likely be laid off for the “indefinite future.”

Given the unprecedented high number of jobless claims this week, McGarrigle would like to see the EI process expedited.

“We'd like to see dollars in people's hands as soon as possible without being overly bureaucratic about it. We need to move fast, to make sure that we give people that sense of relief,” he said.

Forte Law has outlined a list of steps for employers and employees facing layoffs.