March went by. Then April. Then May, June, and now July. Every passing month increases the desperation of tens of thousands of Oregonians who still don’t know when — or if — they’ll get unemployment benefits.
These people are hearing that things are improving, but they still don’t have checks in hand. From Southern Oregon to the Portland suburbs, waiting is their common bond.
“This is not America,” said Casey Kasim, an Iraqi-American town car driver in Beaverton who has been waiting almost five months. “It cannot be like this.”
The Oregon Employment Department reports substantial progress. On Wednesday, the agency announced it had reached its goal of processing 70,000 backlogged claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. PUA is the federal benefit for people who don’t qualify for regular unemployment, including independent contractors and some self-employed workers.
Acting director David Gerstenfeld acknowledged that many Oregonians are still in crisis. He said processing is getting faster. For tens of thousands of waiting people, however, improvement is cold comfort in the face of mounting debt.
Every Sunday since mid-March, Kasim has submitted a weekly unemployment claim — first for regular benefits, then for PUA after Oregon launched its program in late April.
“Zero luck,” he said.
OED has received more than 120,000 applications for PUA so far, some of them duplicates of regular unemployment claims. About 36,000 people have been paid through the program.
When the pandemic decimated his business, Kasim found a new routine: kitchen, couch, TV. The news from Baghdad. After driving in America for more than 20 years, he grew reluctant to even fill up his tank. Keeping his apartment became paramount. He has spent savings and racked up credit card debt.
“The credit card company, they gave me two months’ break on the payment. Eventually they started calling. Now they want their money. I don’t blame them,” he said. “I told them I don’t have money to pay.”
For Kasim, the process of waiting for unemployment is:
“Emotionally … destroying me,” he said.
Financially, his biggest fear has already happened.
“There’s no other fear left, honestly,” he said. “I’m already in it now. That was my biggest fear back in March.”
For some self-employed people, knowing unemployment benefits are out there makes waiting even more wrenching.
“It’s kind of like being on a raft in the ocean after being shipwrecked and you see the land off in the distance,” said Kai Anders, a street performer now staying in Bandon. “I watch as the raft goes by the island and I’m just drifting along. And there’s nothing I can really do about it except for wave my arms and hope somebody sees me.”
Anders has, by his count, called the employment department more than 1,500 times since the pandemic knocked him out of work. The children’s entertainer and ballroom dance instructor used to travel from festival to fair, a wanderer at heart. During the age of coronavirus, he has spent hours on hold, only to be cut off.
“It’s very challenging to live now. I have a lot of pride, and I don’t beg,” he said.
PUA claims are labor-intensive, because the claims specialists processing them must first verify that applicants aren’t eligible for regular unemployment benefits. OED says it has increased processing speeds in recent weeks.
Processing an application is not the same as approving one, however. Many claims go through a lengthy review process. So while self-employed writer and editor Betsy Toll waits for news in her little Portland house, she is also preparing for the worst.
“We’ve been in this house for 20 years, and I’m not at all confident that we’ll be able to keep it,” she said. She’s 70 and her monthly social security payment just covers the mortgage.
The house has been a refuge at times to her grown kids, when they have needed to come home.
“Holding onto my home, that’s all I have for my children. There is nothing else I have for my children,” she said. “That’s hard to say. So if I lose the house, it not only means I lose the house. It means I lose my capacity to be of service to my children.”
Toll said she has it better than many. But like tens of thousands of waiting Oregonians, she’s in a bind. The pandemic means she can’t work enough. Being on hold with unemployment means she can’t plan either.