By August, Marita Juarez was desperate.

It was March when she filed for unemployment benefits, as the coronavirus pandemic slammed Oregon’s workforce. Every day, the 69-year-old got up and cared for her vulnerable parents on the outskirts of Lake Oswego. She went to bed in an RV parked outside.

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Five months went by.

“That was just cruel,” she said of the wait for benefits. “Cruel.”

When her payments came through in mid-August, Juarez felt a surge of joy. Relief. And anger too.

“Thank goodness that I didn’t have little kids and I was with my parents. I don’t see how people could have survived,” she said.

Marita Juarez stands outside her RV in the outskirts of Lake Oswego on Sept. 23, 2020. It took almost five months to get her unemployment benefits.

Marita Juarez stands outside her RV in the outskirts of Lake Oswego on Sept. 23, 2020. It took almost five months to get her unemployment benefits.

Kate Davidson / OPB

It’s no secret that many Oregonians have endured massive delays getting unemployment benefits during the pandemic. Now, federal data is beginning to reflect those delays – and where Oregonians stand.

Data from the U.S. Department of Labor captures how long people have been waiting for benefits when their first payment arrives. It applies only to traditional unemployment insurance, not the federal benefits known as PUA.

Nationally, about 18% of people who began receiving unemployment benefits in July had already waited a long time – more than ten weeks. In Oregon, the figure was substantially higher: 43% of Oregonians whose benefits came through in July had been waiting more than ten weeks.

By the time Juarez got paid in August, she was part of a long-suffering majority. Last month, more than 60% of initial payments in Oregon went to people who had waited more than 70 days.

“It’s pretty horrific,” said George Wentworth, a lawyer with the National Employment Law Project.

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He pointed to the core purpose of unemployment insurance: to partially replace wages when workers lose jobs.

“Those benefits only mean something if they are paid out some time close to when the worker is unemployed,” he said. “So, to have the majority of workers waiting longer than ten weeks to get their first unemployment insurance payment – it can be a tremendous financial burden.”

By contrast, 34% of Washingtonians and 11% of Californians who started getting benefits in August had waited more than ten weeks.

Federal timeliness statistics are backward-looking. They show how long people waited to get benefits once those payments are made. They do not reveal how many people are still waiting – or where.

They are the rearview mirror, not necessarily the road ahead.

Without knowing the extent of other states' backlogs, the head of the Oregon Employment Department thinks the figures are a faulty way to compare states.

In fact, David Gerstenfeld sees something else in Oregon’s seemingly grim statistics – progress clearing old claims.

When long-delayed claims are finally paid, they show up in the federal data with their lengthy wait times. And even though new claims are generally paid more quickly now, Gerstenfeld said, workers are filing fewer of them. That means the percentage of claims paid on time every month is declining.

“As that backlog gets worked through,” he said, “it’s those older claims – the people that have been waiting longer – that actually drives the percentage down until all of those back payments have been worked through.”

Last week, Gerstenfeld revealed a number that he believes better captures the agency’s current challenge.

He told lawmakers that 49,000 Oregonians have all or part of their claims in adjudication. It’s the first time the state has quantified that particular purgatory.

Adjudication is a federally mandated process for resolving issues with claims after initial processing. In Oregon, it can delay payment by months. The state has ramped up hiring and training but has also been challenged by the depth of experience adjudication typically requires of staff.

Federal data may be backward-looking, but it informs an understanding of the state’s current adjudication quagmire. That’s because the U.S. Department of Labor has timeliness standards for adjudication too.

According to the data, Oregon was not meeting those standards, even before the pandemic hit.

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