Past mistakes, future fears: Oregon unemployment hearings continue

By Kate Davidson (OPB)
Sept. 3, 2020 1 p.m.

The head of the employment department testified for eight hours before lawmakers. Next up: the people.

Suddenly, it was September and the pandemic raged on. State senator Kathleen Taylor, D-Milwaukie, grew alarmed.

“I’m just really nervous that it’s September 2,” she said while leading a video hearing on Oregon’s unemployment crisis Wednesday.


“And then all of sudden it’s going to be the end of December.”

On Dec. 26, several critical federal benefits programs authorized by the CARES Act are slated to expire. That includes the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which was designed to get unemployment benefits to people who don’t qualify otherwise.

Taylor called it a cliff. A looming emergency.

“When these benefits run out,” she said, “then we are gonna have a big demand on the state of Oregon to take care of people.”

Federal benefits drying up was one of the concerns lawmakers raised on the second day of hearings, again featuring David Gerstenfeld, acting head of the Oregon Employment Department.

Gerstenfeld again spoke for four hours. He again provided lawmakers on the Senate Interim Committee on Labor and Business with detailed background on his agency’s progress — and failures — processing historic numbers of unemployment claims.

The tone of the hearings will likely change Thursday when Gerstenfeld, mild-mannered and unflappable, cedes his video link to the public. Lawmakers plan to hear directly from unemployed Oregonians at the heart of the crisis.

Modernization was again the elephant in the Zoom during Wednesday’s hearing. The agency’s failure to overhaul its archaic technology — despite receiving more than $85 million to do so in 2009 — left it ill-equipped when the pandemic hit.


Senators Taylor and Tim Knopp, R-Bend, pushed Gerstenfeld on why he pegged December for the implementation of Senate Bill 1701. That measure would temporarily increase how much part-time workers can earn in a week and still receive full unemployment benefits.

Folks want it sooner, the senators said.

That’s possible, Gerstenfeld replied, but it would mean delaying the necessary IT work to implement President Trump’s extra $300 weekly payment. It would also mean more delays getting Oregonians their long-promised “waiting week” payments, now slated to start in late November.

The department cannot implement the three measures at once, despite hiring more people to work with the mainframe’s old programming language.

“Once you find someone that knows COBOL, it means that they know how to program in that language,” Gerstenfeld said. “It doesn’t mean that they have any knowledge about unemployment insurance or — I believe — it’s millions of lines of code that have been put together to create this spiderweb of programs.”

Shaking the spiderweb too much, he said, can have unintended consequences for people currently receiving benefits.

Gerstenfeld also brought data to the table in response to lawmakers’ questions.

He projected that the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund, the pool of money from which regular benefits are paid, would remain solvent, hitting its lowest point in 2022. The fund still has roughly $4.4 billion.

Gerstenfeld shared demographic data showing that Oregon’s communities of color are losing ground in the COVID-19 recession.

“The percentage of people that are still unemployed, who are in communities of color, is increasing,” he said. “That’s basically showing that as the recovery progresses, those communities are not feeling the recovery the same as other communities.”

Gerstenfeld concluded his testimony with several asks. On the federal level, he called for permanent structures for expanding benefits in financial emergencies, so states don’t have to scramble to create new programs.

On the state level, he asked for the flexibility to extend temporary rules beyond 180 days, as well as a policy decision on whether the waiting week should remain in place beyond the current crisis.

By noon on Wednesday, eight people had signed up to share their experiences with the unemployment system the next day. The public is invited to walk up to a kiosk behind the capitol in Salem on Thursday morning, from 8 to noon.