Oregonians might receive an extra $300 in weekly unemployment benefits. Or they might not. State officials say they still don’t know.
The supplemental benefits President Trump created through executive order last weekend have sown widespread confusion around the country — including at the Oregon Employment Department.
“Who pays for the cost of implementing and administering the program?” acting director David Gerstenfeld asked at his weekly press briefing Wednesday. “How much would it cost Oregonians for that program to be implemented and for the benefits to be paid? How long would those benefits really last?
“At this point, unfortunately, the picture is still pretty incomplete.”
Trump’s program aims to temporarily take the place of the $600 supplemental payments that millions of Americans relied on as the coronavirus pandemic blew apart their jobs and lives. Those CARES Act payments expired at the end of July. Congressional action to renew them has stalled so far.
The president’s program, however, is not an extension of Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, known as PUC. Instead, it would redirect up to $44 billion in disaster relief funds to supplement workers’ lost wages. That’s a pot of money with a relatively short lifespan, given the scale of job losses in the country.
The terms of the program have shifted since Saturday.
The president’s original executive memorandum required states to share the cost of the new benefit with the federal government. It called for the federal government to provide $300 and leaned on states to chip in $100 per week, so that unemployed workers could get a combined $400 extra, every week.
By Tuesday, White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow had clarified. He told Fox Business that states already providing at least $100 a week in underlying unemployment benefits would meet the program’s requirements.
That formulation could mean an additional weekly benefit of $300, not $400.
Gerstenfeld said “broad brush” federal guidance released Tuesday appears to allow two options: either a $300 federal benefit with no additional state contribution or a $400 payment if states choose to add more.
Gerstenfeld said big questions remain — among them, how much Oregon has to pay when federal money runs out.
“States would then be in the position of having to either discontinue the payments or find state revenues to fund them,” he said. “Certainly, Oregon and just about every other state is having very serious budget problems because of the impact of the pandemic.”
He added that the state’s designated unemployment insurance trust fund is still healthy at $4.45 billion.
An official with the governor’s office told OPB on Tuesday that no decision had been made about whether to implement the new program. Gerstenfeld said the employment department is waiting for clearer guidance and that the window for state applications, administered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is open until early September.
OED has been hamstrung by archaic IT infrastructure throughout the pandemic, which has made it a challenge to roll out new programs. And there is plenty more IT work ahead at the agency.
The department has yet to put in the coding hours to waive the “waiting week,” despite Gov. Kate Brown’s calls to do so months ago. Gerstenfeld said a new measure passed by Oregon lawmakers in special session this week would also require several hundred hours of IT work.
SB 1701 would allow people receiving unemployment benefits to earn more money in a given week and still get full benefits. If signed, the law would allow part-time workers to make the greater of $300 a week or one-third of their weekly benefit amount before their payments are reduced.
A second measure passed by legislators this week seeks to streamline the sharing of tax information between the Department of Revenue and OED in order to speed the processing of PUA claims. It is not a technology-heavy fix.
Meanwhile, Oregon has paid out $3.7 billion in unemployment benefits during the pandemic.
“If you look at this as though it were a payroll for a business,” Gerstenfeld said, “this is a larger payroll than every other industry in the state of Oregon.”