The pandemic brought an overwhelming number of people seeking services from Oregon’s Employment Department. But even before that unprecedented event occurred, the department knew it needed to modernize.
“We were in the process of contracting a vendor to help us modernize when the pandemic came,” David Gerstenfeld, acting director of the Oregon Employment Department, said.
On Tuesday, the department launched Frances Online, a new platform to manage services the state offers to Oregon’s employers. Gerstenfeld said the platform allows a lot of self-serve options for managing accounts. Employers can log on, have a secure way to communicate back and forth with department staff, upload documents, look at the status of claims, and see what information they’ve been sent in the past.
“Before, they would have to either fill out paper forms or call up and talk to us,” he said.
The new system will allow employment department employees to work more efficiently, according to Gerstenfeld.
“Even that efficiency part just goes to making everything better for people who are relying on us for benefits or help getting any employment.”
The first part of Oregon’s paid family leave system has launched on the platform, allowing employers who want to offer their own paid family medical leave benefits, to submit an equivalent plan. Employers can also file quarterly payroll reports online.
Frances Online was named after Frances Perkins, who was the first female, and longest serving, federal labor secretary and an advocate for workers’ rights. The launch of the online system is the culmination of more than a decade of planning to modernize services.
Officials say the system was primarily funded by the federal government, through $85 million the department received in 2009.
“There was a recognition that we needed to modernize, and that preserving the funds to pay for it was important,” Gerstenfeld said. “But the agency wasn’t caught up with its work at the time, and wasn’t in a position to successfully do all of the hard work needed to have a good plan.”
He said the department decided not to rush the process.
Shortly after starting the modernization process, the pandemic hit and the agency was overwhelmed. Auditors with the Oregon Secretary of State’s office criticized the department’s handing of the unprecedented number of unemployment claims. Secretary of State Shemia Fagan said the state’s unemployment insurance program failed when it was needed most.
“We originally wanted to make sure that it could withstand historically high volumes of claims,” Gerstenfeld said. “After the pandemic, everybody’s understanding of what a historically high volume of claims was, had changed drastically.”
Fagan’s audit of the department identified the outdated system as a main cause of the issues. Previous audits from the Secretary of State’s office, in 2012 and 2015, warned that the agency’s mainframe system, dating to the 1990s, was too rigid to handle complicated claims or rule changes, and relied too much on manual processes, leading to errors. The 2015 audit recommended that the Employment Department replace that legacy system — a modernization process that is only now underway.
“But we learned a lot and some of the key challenges that we faced in Oregon are things that this project will help tremendously with,” Gerstenfeld said. ”A lot of it is around communication.”
More services will be added to the platform next year, including filing for unemployment benefits and use of the state’s new paid family and medical leave program, called Paid Leave Oregon. The state’s paid leave system was originally slated to launch last January, but benefits won’t be available through that system until September 2023.
“This isn’t just updating a computer system and then saying we’re done, it really is us constantly improving how we serve the public and that’s why getting the technology that is more flexible was so important,” Gerstenfeld said.
Starting the new platform has admittedly been a lot of work according to Gerstenfeld, especially for department employees who have been working under the old system for years, and are learning how to use the new platform.
Gerstenfeld said on the first day it launched, people already began using the new platform.
“We’ve already had hundreds of employers register in the system,” Gerstenfeld said. “We’ve had over 100 third-party administrators, like accountants or payroll administrators that represent large numbers of employees, go in and registered themselves and a number of clients. So we’re seeing things work being done in the system.”