Update April 28, 11 a.m: The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program is now open and accepting applications. Self-employed, freelance, and gig workers can click here to apply.

As the COVID-19 crisis continues, hundreds of thousands of Oregonians are out of work. Many still haven’t been able to access unemployment benefits, let alone speak to someone at an employment agency with an ever-present busy signal.

“I appreciate your patience with the unemployment department. These are issues states, frankly across the nation, are wrestling with,” said Gov. Kate Brown during a Wednesday economic roundtable on Zoom. “We’re dealing with a computer system that’s older than I am, so that’s been a huge challenge. The department is going to work around that or work through that, but it will take time. I can promise you that Oregonians will get every single cent due to them.”

Self-employed business owners, in particular, have fallen through the cracks. Several reached out to Portland Monthly with the same story: they were not selected for the Prosper Portland grants or loans, they did not receive funding from the Payroll Protection Program or Small Business Association emergency loans (which ran out of money in record time), and they still haven’t been able to get unemployment benefits. All the while, bills from their personal lives and shuttered businesses pile up around them with no end in sight.

But the CARES Act has specially designated Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) to provide benefits to these folks who previously were not covered by regular unemployment, including self-employed people like hair stylists and boutique owners, 1099 contract workers like photographers and copywriters, and gig workers like rideshare drivers. Though Oregon has processed 300,000 unemployment claims in the last three weeks—double what we saw during the Great Recession—the self-employed have either been ignored or rejected.  

“The employment department is working in multiple shifts to get staff in place to move through the backlog of claims to process. We are basically up to date on simple claims. It’s the more complex claims that are bogging down the system right now. That is a people issue more than anything else,” said Brown’s workforce and labor policy advisor Christian Gaston during the same Zoom call, who noted that the employment processing center would expand to 800 employees by May 1 to deal with these special cases. “On the pandemic unemployment assistance for those gig workers and small business owners, they’re doing the work to get that into place right now. That’s going to be a little bit of a different processing system, so hopefully it’ll move a little bit quicker once it’s in place. We’ve got a little bit more than a week and a half to start seeing those claims rolling through the system.”

Gail Krumenauer, interim communications director of the Oregon Employment Department, further clarified the problem stems from the current system's inability to gather the information it needs from the self-employed. "That set of earnings information is entirely different, and something the agency has never processed, or had a way to process, for the self-employed, who have never before been eligible for regular unemployment benefits. That’s why Oregon, and the Employment Department at every other state in the nation, has taken a few weeks to get a brand new system up and running," she says via email while noting the special new system is in pilot testing and hoping to launch next week. "If self-employed, contract, or gig workers in Oregon have not already applied, they will have the same opportunity as everyone to file their application and certification materials when we launch the program. We encourage everyone to sign up for updates on our COVID-19 page so they know when those materials and other information become available. If they have already applied, that’s fine and they can continue to do so. We are working on a way to streamline the components of information they have already given to us into that new application and certification process."

In the meantime, the employment department has set up a special email for cases related to coronavirus unemployment questions at [email protected].

Visit our resource guide for small businesses dealing with the impact of COVID-19 here. 

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