The Oregon Employment Department is bracing for a spike in unemployment claims, as coronavirus restrictions going into effect Wednesday force businesses to change operations or possibly close, in an effort to keep the virus from spreading out of control.

Oregon health officials have announced some of the highest case totals over the last few weeks since COVID-19 first showed up in the state back in February. Last week, Gov. Kate Brown announced a two-week “freeze” and tighter restrictions on everything from social gatherings to travel to restaurant operations, effective Wednesday.

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The new rules are expected to cause many businesses to scale back their workforces, likely leading to a rise in unemployment claims. Last spring and summer, when similar rules went into effect, OED was overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of jobless claims hitting their systems.

Acting director of OED David Gerstenfeld told “Think Out Loud” Tuesday the situation will be different this fall and winter.

“We’re certainly not anticipating it being as bad as it was during the initial onset, part of that is because, unfortunately, a lot of people are still unemployed,” Gerstenfeld said.

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While OED estimates that nearly half of the job losses from March and April were recovered over the summer and early fall, that still leaves thousands of people who are out of work. They won’t have to submit new claims. And Gerstenfeld says many people who lose their jobs in the coming weeks are likely already in OED’s system — because they’ve already lost work.

“A whole lot of people that are going to be filing benefits are people that have already sought benefits at some point during the pandemic,” Gerstenfeld said. “So they really don’t need to start from scratch with filing a brand new claim — in most cases, they’ll be able to just re-start the claim that they already had.”

At the same time, Gerstenfeld says his agency is better prepared to handle a high volume of claims than it was back in the spring. OED has added hundreds of staff to help process initial claims, and those claims processors are still on the job.

In addition, Gerstenfeld said the state is anticipating adding National Guard members to help work through claims as needed. The bottom line, Gerstenfeld says, is that many of the incoming claims are likely to be fairly simple and ought to be resolved within the 21-day timeline set out by federal standards.

“For new people coming in they should get their initial payment within 21 days,” Gerstenfeld said.

But people filing claims with OED this time may get paid less than before.

Earlier this year, Congress passed relief packages, including $600 supplemental payments for people receiving unemployment benefits, and more recently, the Trump administration allowed a limited run of $300 weekly payments from FEMA to out-of-work Oregonians. Neither of those funding sources is available now. Further, Gerstenfeld said there are other funding sources that are set to expire at the end of this year if Congress doesn’t act to extend them.

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