It is an experiment hastened by a COVID-19 office outbreak. For the first time, staff from the Oregon Employment Department will process Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims from home – at least temporarily.

When the pandemic first hit, the agency resisted letting claims processors telework, despite rising concern from lawmakers and employees about the threat of office spread. Some OED staff began working remotely, but many remained in the office.

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Two department employees tested positive for the virus in April, according to OED.

"Of course, we've considered it," former director Kay Erickson told lawmakers in May, when asked about letting claims processors work remotely. "We considered the risk of slow internet connections in homes. We considered the risk of having extra family members present with sensitive information accessible."

Erickson also said at the time that all IT resources were needed to roll out new federal benefit programs and onboard hundreds of hires. Days later, she was ousted by the governor.

Meanwhile, employees’ concerns about office safety rose as their ranks swelled and the agency opened a new call center.

Last week, David Gerstenfeld, acting director of the employment agency, disclosed several more COVID-19 cases, at what he said were multiple locations. He also announced a pilot program to allow up to 20 adjudicators to work from home to resolve issues with claims. It was meant to start gradually.

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The virus accelerated that rollout — and changed it.

By Tuesday, six people at an employment office in Gresham tested positive for COVID-19. The Gresham WorkSource staff were already scheduled to start processing PUA claims for gig workers and the self-employed. The department is struggling to process a backlog of roughly 60,000 such claims.

Now, Gresham staff will tackle those claims from home.

“The employment department was able to take advantage of the fact that the pilot was set up for the telework and put those people to work immediately,” said Steven Demarest, president of SEIU Local 503, which represents many agency employees.

“They can go ahead and process these PUA claims while they quarantine for 14 days.”

It is not a permanent arrangement. OED said that when Gresham staff can return to work, their slots in the pilot will be taken by adjudicators as previously planned.

Meanwhile, the Gresham office closed for deep cleaning. The Multnomah County Health Department is conducting contact tracing, according to OED.

The employment agency said it will mandate and provide face coverings for all employees when the building reopens – and will soon expand that mandate agency-wide.

It is unclear if the teleworking pilot means more claims processors will work remotely in the future.

“The teleworking is a safety issue,” Demarest said. As coronavirus cases rise in the state, less time in the office means less risk of exposure.

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