Since March, the Oregon Employment Department (OED) has been hit with a record number of folks applying for traditional unemployment insurance benefits, the newly created Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) branch for the self-employed, and Work Share programs for employees with hours cut. In that time, the Employment Department has received 515,000 claims for regular unemployment insurance, a 950 percent increase in the number of people the department paid in all of 2019. In total, the department has paid more than 300,000 Oregonians about $2.89 billion in benefits since this pandemic began.
Here’s what’s happening with unemployment right now:
- 13 OED employees have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Two back in April, but the remainder more recently, with six cases alone stemming from the department's Gresham office. The department has since closed the Gresham office for two weeks, moving some of those employees to a teleworking pilot program which may be a future option for many more employees as they say they are consistently onboarding more to deal with the backlog.
- OED has created a new unemployment website that has an eligibility quiz to answer which type of unemployment you might be able to receive and 150 frequently asked questions that cover specific topics from Phase 1 reopening to details on the CARES Act to how to decipher your form letter which may save you a phone call.
- The PUA department, which has come under particular scrutiny with one of its own employees declaring mismanagement has slowed down work, says as of this week it has completed 40 percent of its claims with another 55,000 people still to process. The agency says it is prioritizing older claims first and those who have gone more than four weeks without a payment. However, in a Zoom set up by Livelihood NW on Monday between Gerstenfeld and several self-employed people, multiple individuals in the chat indicated they have not gotten any money yet several months after filing their claims. Today the OED launched a new Google app through the website that is specifically designed to improve submission success by replacing the temporary PDFs that led to some blank pages submitted. It is also said to have a built-in failsafe, prompting a warning if a claimant failed to fill out all necessary information, a problem that has led to a lag in many benefits. Finally, they say it will speed up weekly benefit processing which PUA claimants are required to submit a weekly certification to get benefits and this will automate them. They say people should resubmit their weekly claims through the new form if they have not already been paid for those weeks.
- This week, the Legislature's Joint Emergency Board approved a $35 million program that grants a one-time $500 payment to Oregonians who haven’t yet received any unemployment benefits. The Department of Administrative Services is now tasked with figuring out how people will apply for and receive those payments. According to the United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, the median budget for food in an American household in 2019 was $727 per month.
- The OED is now facing a multi-plaintiff lawsuit filed by the Oregon Law Center and Legal Aid Services of Oregon. The 13 plaintiffs state that the incredible delays in payment, lack of translation services (director Gerstenfeld did note in the weekly press briefing that the new website is now professionally translated into 15 languages and there is a new translation hotline number for claims at 503-606-6969), and several other complaints. Director Gerstenfeld said he was unable to comment on ongoing litigation.