Their voices broke with emotion and, often, the line broke up too.
Oregonians who have struggled to get unemployment benefits shared their experiences with lawmakers during a remote hearing Thursday. Dozens more submitted written testimony.
“It is confusing. It is terrifying. I don’t understand what’s going on,” said Audrey Heesch, a Washington County resident who applied for benefits in March. “I cannot get help from a human being to give me direction.”
The personal stories capped three days of hearings on the state’s unemployment crisis and the months-long wait for help that thousands continue to endure. The acting director of the Oregon Employment Department, David Gerstenfeld, testified Tuesday and Wednesday.
The agency has paid out a jaw-dropping $4 billion in benefits during the pandemic. It has processed hundreds of thousands of initial claims. That is cold comfort, however, to the tens of thousands of Oregonians whose claims have been flagged for adjudication, a review process that can take months.
The state doesn’t usually collect data on how many claims are in adjudication, Gerstenfeld told senators on the labor and business committee this week. The agency only reports data on completed adjudications, as required by the federal government.
Christina Lambert testified Thursday that she waited 13 weeks for her claim to be processed and adjudicated.
“I would call at 6:59, a minute before the phone lines opened. And it would redirect me, stating that it was too early. To call back when they were open,” she said. “If I called right on the hour at 7 am, the phone lines were automatically busy.”
Then she got bad news. She told lawmakers an adjudicator denied her claim on improper grounds, without speaking to her first.
“Now I’m left helpless,” said the single mom with no degree. She hand wrote an appeal.
“This year I couldn’t afford a birthday gift for my son,” she said. If it weren’t for her electronic benefits card, “he probably wouldn’t have had a cake.”
About a dozen people testified Thursday. Committee chair Kathleen Taylor, D-Milwaukie, said more would have shown up if the pandemic hadn’t closed the Capitol.
Many of those who called in had already appealed to lawmakers for help with their claims, including Joshua Ward of Clackamas County. He was grateful for his representative’s intervention, but demanded accountability.
“If this is an oversight committee, have some oversight!” he said, his voice rising in frustration. “Do something. Because this is a disgrace. It’s a disgrace.”
He blamed the employment department’s leaders.
“There needs to be no more excuses. This computer system has been bungled for over a decade. What the heck? And now that we have the pandemic hit, the chickens come home to roost,” he said.
One OED employee actually called in to testify. Esther Harlow is herself a claimant from a layoff last year.
She praised the clarity of Gerstenfeld’s testimony to the committee but criticized what she called an almost “militaristic siloing of information” within the department.
The agency now has about 1,000 people processing claims. As it ramped up emergency hiring, it trained hundreds of new workers to address claims in a piecemeal fashion — a dynamic Gerstenfeld has acknowledged. Harlow pointed out that people processing state unemployment claims — Unemployment Insurance, or UI — weren’t aware of how the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits, or PUA, were being handled.
“There’s pretty much a need-to-know culture,” Harlow testified. “Like PUA is absolutely in this black box, and if you’re here on the UI side, you don’t need to know anything about PUA other than what’s on the public website.”
It harms people who are out of work, she said, when claims specialists have limited information. She added that it’s difficult to escalate claims based on how desperately a person needs help.
“I’ve had lots of claimants who’ve had utilities shut off and don’t have rent money,” she said. “So I think that does a disservice.”
The hearing concluded early since so few people appeared, virtually, to testify. The pandemic complicated everything, the committee chair said, public participation included.