On some other day, picking a vendor to modernize its ancient computer system would be the biggest news from the Oregon Employment Department – and perhaps the state.

After all, the agency’s failure to upgrade its system – despite receiving $86 million to do so in 2009 – has underpinned many of its struggles delivering unemployment benefits to hundreds of thousands of people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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On Thursday, the agency announced it finally had a vendor: FAST Enterprises, a company that has built unemployment insurance systems for other states.

“After a year-long procurement process, the Employment Department is one step closer to completing our modernization program today,” acting director David Gerstenfeld said in a statement. “These improvements will allow us to more effectively serve unemployed Oregonians and improve security.”

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Moments later, the department confirmed it was temporarily closing a major claims processing center in Wilsonville because of wildfire smoke, a move expected to cause more service delays.

Even on a major day for the agency’s long-awaited modernization project, the rolling crises of 2020 hogged the stage: plague, unemployment, fire.

The Wilsonville contact center has hundreds of workers. It is integral to the agency’s work processing hundreds of thousands of pandemic-driven unemployment claims. On Thursday morning, employees reported staff were coughing from visible smoke that filled the building. Wilsonville was then in a Level One – “Be Ready” – evacuation status.

The agency closed the dampers and the building. It is at least the third agency office temporarily shuttered by wildfire conditions this week, including smaller facilities in Newport and Lincoln City. Those closures, combined with network outages, are expected to increase service delays.

Meanwhile, the Employment Department is urging fire evacuees seeking benefits to update their addresses online to avoid missing paper checks, ReliaCards, or other time-sensitive information sent by mail.

The Wilsonville office closure may last as little as one day, but the modernization project is the future of the state’s unemployment insurance system. The upgrade is expected to take several years to complete.

FAST Enterprises beat out fellow finalist Deloitte as the state’s pick. The state Department of Administrative Services' announcement of an “intent to award a contract” is not the final step. The state and company will now negotiate final terms and conditions, including price and scope.

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