Tens of thousands of Oregonians have been paid a form of unemployment benefits they didn’t ask for.
Between 35,000 and 40,000 people erroneously received the $300 per week supplemental benefit known as Lost Wages Assistance, according to the acting director of the Oregon Employment Department, David Gerstenfeld.
In September, the state began disbursing up to six weeks of those payments, or $1,800. The limited run of extra payments went to people who already received unemployment benefits this summer. The agency said Wednesday it has paid out $344 million to almost 240,000 Oregonians so far.
Federal law requires that LWA overpayments be recouped. President Donald Trump authorized the payments through a presidential memorandum in August, following the expiration of a $600 weekly supplement that was widely credited with softening the blow of the coronavirus crisis. The LWA program is funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The good news, Gerstenfeld said at his weekly press briefing, is the Employment Department believes most people who received the payments in error could still keep them. In essence, the money could be theirs if they apply for it.
“A very large majority of those people do actually meet the eligibility requirements to get those benefits,” he said. “They just hadn’t yet completed the certification.”
To get the extra $300 per week, people receiving regular unemployment or a form of extended benefits were supposed to go online and attest that their work loss was related to the pandemic. That step wasn’t required for people receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits.
Gerstenfeld urged people who received LWA benefits without having filled out the required form to self-certify online as quickly as possible. He said the department would work out collection plans with people who still don’t qualify for the payments they received.
Gerstenfeld made several other announcements at his weekly briefing.
He said the deadline to apply for Disaster Unemployment Assistance has been extended to Nov. 27. This federal benefit is available to some people who lost work because of the disastrous spate of wildfires that swept Oregon after Labor Day. Workers in Clackamas, Douglas, Jackson, Klamath, Lane, Lincoln, Linn and Marion counties may be eligible if they don’t qualify for other benefit programs.
Gerstenfeld also gave a name to the agency’s effort to work through its adjudication backlog: “Focus Adjudication.” Adjudication is a lengthy, legally required process for resolving eligibility issues with claims. It can delay payment by months and has left tens of thousands of Oregonians in limbo.
Gerstenfeld said out of 52,000 people who required adjudication at the end of September, 41,700 of them remain in the queue. Thousands have received advance payments through a program called Benefits While You Wait. However, the agency doesn’t expect to finish adjudicating their claims until close to year’s end.
The lengthy waits caused by adjudication are one focus of a new class action lawsuit against the agency.
Looking ahead, Gerstenfeld confirmed something he previously told state lawmakers. He said next year the state expects to modestly increase the payroll taxes employers pay to fund the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund, the pool of money used for regular unemployment benefits. Gerstenfeld anticipates employers will move into “Schedule 4” — the middle of eight tax schedules designed to keep the fund solvent.
Each employer will receive their individual tax rates in mid-November. Those rates are influenced by how often a company’s employees collect unemployment benefits.