“When we first started processing applications, we were told to hold off on applications that were missing information, such as SSN, DOB, or a missed question. I asked if I could call or email people that had missing information and management said no, someone else will do it.”
So says Desi Thonis, an employee at Oregon's COVID-19-born Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. In a lengthy interview with Portland Monthly, Thonis says she believes inefficient leadership in the program has caused tens of thousands of self-employed Oregonians to go without any income since the state closures of businesses in March.
“For two weeks we all sat at our desks with nothing to do because management didn’t have anything for us to do," she says. "That was bullshit because there was a lot to do, they just didn’t want us to do it…. For those two weeks I sat at my desk, played with my phone, and got paid for it. Your tax dollars paid me to sit at my desk and play on Instagram.”
Reached for comment, the Oregon Employment Department responds: "We recognized early on that PUA would offer significant support to many people who were previously ineligible for unemployment benefits. We also knew it would be very difficult to implement," says acting director of the Oregon Employment Department, David Gerstenfeld. "The process has indeed been challenging and highly manual for everyone, and not all staff had phones and other resources to do the work in the beginning. We’re now improving the technology, training and staffing needed to process the 70,000 remaining applications by the beginning of August."
Thonis did a five-year stint processing claims at the Unemployment Department in 2008 to 2013 before leaving and returning to work in the new PUA department. Created by the federal CARES Act, it 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. She says she’s grown increasingly frustrated with management’s handling of claims, saying thousands are not being processed because of small errors such as not inputting a full social security number or failing to answer a question correctly. She says management has instructed the team of staffers to not call any of the people whose claims are stuck, and that they will instead be called by another team at the department. Thonis, says to her knowledge, no such teams exist, and claims are simply being left in limbo.
"There are groups with specialized knowledge that handle different parts of the PUA claims process. Some PUA applications need to be examined by someone with in-depth unemployment claims experience to see if the worker was an independent contractor or an employee, or may be eligible for regular unemployment insurance benefits," Gerstendfeld says. "We also have another group that led the building of Oregon’s PUA program handling particularly complicated issues. While we continue to train more of our employees on more parts of PUA, we could not wait to fully train most employees on all parts of the program before starting to pay benefits."
Thonis has a different understanding. “I was told that I couldn't call people because, one, at the time, we didn't have phones. We were at a temporary office. And two, we weren't ready to take phone calls or make calls. We weren't trained on it yet,” she says. “We were told to send it over to the different tier [of PUA reps], that was supposed to make the phone calls and get that information, but I guess that never happened. Because a lot of those applications still have not been worked on to this day."
Oregon's Employment Department has been plagued with complaints of people not getting their claims via the traditional unemployment area, the Work Share department for employees with dramatically reduced hours, and the PUA department. On May 31, Gov. Kate Brown asked director Kay Erickson to step down, and replaced her with David Gerstenfeld, the former Director of the Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance Division. In a June 19 webinar put out by the PUA department, employees read announcements on behalf of Gerstenfeld stating, “PUA has been incredibly hard to launch. For regular UI claims, we already have things like hours and earnings in our system for people who work for [their] employer’s payroll…. We have a huge number of people who have PUA claims and who need benefits. We are working very hard to try and get through all of those in an orderly fashion.” The webinar goes on to state PUA has received nearly 100,000 claims and have only paid out a fifth of those.
Portland Monthly heard from dozens of PUA applicants—photographers, event producers, vintage shop owners, and clothing designers to name a few—in the currently remaining 70,000 unprocessed claims who haven’t received any money. Nearly all said they had been sent an automatic email that said, “Applications are reviewed in the order we receive them. We will contact you if we need more information when processing your claim.” They have yet to be called.
“I called the help line 500 times each day for a week. That’s 2,500 times. It was a recorded busy signal every moment. I gave up,” says illustrator Amy Ruppel. “Self-employed folks should be able to get the $600 CARES Act federal money separate from the state funds if they can’t get their shit together. I was told four weeks ago via phone message that they received my PUA application, which I had sent in the day it was available, and I would be contacted in two weeks. Nope.”
“I’ve been able to get through once and was told they put my pin in wrong and that was the holdup. I was told they have my tax info and my application was approved. Still no money and haven’t been able to get through since,” says Robin Barnett of Habit Sugaring Studio. “It also still only shows three weeks online and pending, but I’m waiting on 13-plus weeks. I’ve been calling for months and it’s usually a busy signal. My status has remained the same online, so I’m pretty sure whoever I talked to didn’t resolve anything.”
In the case of Enjoy Co. Hair Studio’s owner and barber Corey Ciresi, PUA had reached out to him to be part of its pilot program when it began opening to claimants in April, which he thought would mean he would get access to his benefits first.
“I absolutely regret being in the pilot program. I was excited about it at the time, but it totally screwed me until Desi came along. There was no sort of assistance or guidance at all. I ended up answering some questions wrong because the verbiage was off the wall,” Ciresi says. “Then it becomes my full-time job to try to locate money that the federal and state governments said would help get me through so I don't have a manic episode breakdown, which I will tell you I had many of. I was struggling with horrors and suicide ideation at points.”
Instead, Ciresi says he went through a confusing system without any tutorials or explanations, which caused him to answer a question wrong, which held up his claim. No one ever contacted him to let him know, and after many phone calls—one where he says he was on hold so long he drove from Northwest Portland to the Costco near the airport, went shopping, drove home, and unpacked his groceries before the system hung up on him—he finally got through. Two times PUA staffers told him the glitch was fixed and he could expect funds within days. Both times this was untrue. By the time the phone system led him to Thonis, this was his third attempt for funds after 13 weeks without any income.
He and Thonis bonded over mutual interests while she was fixing his account. She was so frustrated with the story of how he had been repeatedly told his checks were in the mail, then wouldn’t arrive, that she ended up messaging with him from her Instagram account about how badly mismanaged the PUA staff were.
Eager for the word to get out, they contacted accountant Jenna Hope who had turned her business Instagram for Shift Accounting LLC into a platform of communication for all who were struggling to receive their benefits. Hope would share tips, including calling one minute before the unemployment offices open to skip ahead of the wait times, how much business owners are allowed to pay themselves from the PPP loans, and petitions to get the weekly $600 federal unemployment bonus extended through all of 2020 instead of ending in July. It also became a place for people to share all the ways the gig economy still isn’t being reflected in these measures, with multiple examples of independent contractors who had small part-time jobs that resulted in W2s but made the bulk of their money from 1099s as freelancers. They are ineligible for PUA and can only apply to traditional Unemployment Insurance even if that W2 is only a fraction of their annual income.
After sharing the screenshots of the direct messages between Ciresi and Thonis publicly, Hope reached out to Portland Monthly. In our interview Thonis reiterates management has created this situation. She says she wants people to know what’s going on and to get management to listen and make some changes. She also says she is far from the only staffer to make suggestions to help claimants that have been ignored, saying one of her coworkers who repeatedly brought up the idea of using social media to release daily videos with tips or the most asked question of the day was sent a note from HR to cease making suggestions or face penalties.
“They first told us that they wanted us to spend 10 minutes on calls. Then they changed it to 20 minutes. Then they were just like just pick up phone calls and get whatever information you can and someone else will call them. So they weren't giving us the right information and they kept changing everything on us,” says Thonis. “I've been noticing a lot, when reps need help with a question, our managers are never around. So, reps start making things up, or they'll start saying, ‘Yeah I'm doing it, I'm keying in your application, and you'll get your money soon.’ They're lying. They're not doing any of that stuff. Most customers reps are so afraid to tell the callers the truth.”
So, what does help claimants? Calling PUA directly and repeatedly until you get your back claims and then again to make sure the weekly claims continue to get processed. Thonis says to not give up and notes she and her coworkers have received multiple calls from suicidal Oregonians, for which they are not trained to deal with. And be prepared to be patient.
At the time of opening, Thonis says the PUA office had approximately 200 employees working on processing claims. As of this week she estimates it is down to just 60 or 70 with many quitting from the stressful conditions, and some being promoted or transferred to other departments.
But Oregon Employment Communications Advisor Ariane Le Chevallier, says there are more employees than Thonis is aware of. "We started with 70 people back in April and now have over 200, with more hiring underway. We have more people now doing PUA than we have had at any point in the past. In addition, we do have employees processing PUA applications at multiple locations across the state."
Thonis, Ciresi, and Hope have formed a friendship and have vowed to not stop pushing for reform in the Unemployment Department until everyone has their pay. To that end, Hope collaborated with Unemployed Workers Council Oregon, Snack Bloc, Community Alliance of Tenants, and Art is Irresistible for a socially distanced and family-friendly march on Friday, June 26 that ended at the Worksource Oregon offices. She says more are likely to come.
“It is important because it is an opportunity for all workers to come together in solidarity and fight for the resources we deserve, whether we are traditionally eligible for unemployment or not,” says Hope. “Rather than working in isolation to fight for individual unemployment claims, we need to collaborate and work in solidarity as one unemployed worker’s council and movement.”
Update June 30, 11 a.m: This article has been updated to add a statement from the Oregon Employment Department on the number of PUA employees.