Oregon employment officials questioned about unemployment delays

Thousands of Oregonians are still waiting on unemployment checks. On Saturday, state lawmakers grilled the heads of the Employment Department on the hold up.

PORTLAND, Ore — Oregon has seen record unemployment during the coronavirus pandemic, and many thousands of people still have yet to receive their unemployment checks.

That’s meant a lot of frustration from people without jobs as well as lawmakers who represent them. On Saturday morning, Oregon legislators grilled Oregon Employment Department officials about the hold up.

The informational meeting with the House Interim Committee on Business and Labor happened as U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, in a rare move, called for the Employment Department’s director, Kay Erickson, to resign. 

In a statement, Wyden said in part, “Over the past weeks and months, it has become painfully clear that the Oregon Employment Department leadership has totally failed to meet these Oregonians’ needs or to support its own dedicated employees working to process claims.”

He also said, “Simply put, this litany of incompetence and unresponsiveness has hit the breaking point.”

A 9 a.m. on Saturday, over a Zoom video chat, state lawmakers questioned Erickson and David Gerstenfeld, the paid family and medical leave insurance division director for the Oregon Employment Department.

The committee’s chair, Representative Paul Holvey of Eugene, said many legislators are receiving hundreds of e-mails about the roughly 38,000 backlog of Oregonians who still have yet to get their unemployment claims processed.

When asked if she felt the Employment Department was prepared for the pandemic, Erickson said the OED was not prepared for the situation.

“I don’t know how anyone would be prepared,” said Erickson.

She said the volume of jobless claims because of the pandemic, coupled with an outdated system designed in the 1930s has made things difficult.

“This situation needs to be addressed quicker and better,” said one legislator.

So far, things have been far from quick, especially with so many calls to the Employment Department going unanswered.

“How can I get an answer, how can anybody get an answer if we can’t get through to anybody,” said Representative Margaret Doherty of Tigard.

Employment Department officials pointed to “Project Focus 100.” It’s their push to process 100% of the backlog by hiring more staff, focusing on the oldest and most complex claims, being more proactive in contacting people with claims, and using more technology to bridge the gaps. They say they’re hoping to see some positive changes as soon as next week.

“We expect to see significant reeducation in the wait times and we’re going to be continuing to focus on that,” said Gerstenfeld.

Those in the committee stressed the need for something to be done soon.

“We can’t wait to the next business and labor meeting to check back in to see how many people are still left out there that have got nothing and what’s happened to them,” said Holvey.

While the state said most of the more than 440,000 traditional unemployment claims have been processed, about half of those people have not received payment.

That doesn’t include “Pandemic Unemployment Assistance” claims for self-employed and other who can’t work because of the pandemic.

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