More than 445,000 applications for unemployment benefits.
More than $1.5 billion in benefits paid.
A system ill-equipped to handle a plague.
And an apology, which laid-off workers likely value less than long-awaited checks.
Those are the broad themes that emerged when leaders of the Oregon Employment Department took questions from the media Friday. The press availability followed a curious state House committee hearing this week, in which lawmakers did not directly question employment department head Kay Erickson or her deputy David Gerstenfeld.
In an unusual move, the House Interim Committee on Business and Labor then called the Oregon Employment Department leaders back to answer lawmakers’ questions for three hours Saturday morning.
Friday’s press briefing was the first access many reporters have had to Erickson in weeks. While it covered familiar ground, the briefing also provided additional insight into the backlogs and technical problems that have stymied thousands of Oregonians’ efforts to get help during the coronavirus pandemic.
Gerstenfeld provided the most detail in his breakdown of regular unemployment insurance claims filed since the economy began to crater.
About 445,000 people have filed claims for regular benefits since March 15, Gerstenfeld said.
“That’s more than twice what we received in all of last calendar year, 2019,” he said.
Of those, he said, the department has paid regular benefits to 245,000 people — about 55% of those who sought help.
That means almost half of the people who applied for traditional unemployment benefits haven’t gotten them – about 200,000 people.
About 73,000 of them were found ineligible for regular benefits, Gerstenfeld said, although some went on to apply for new federal benefits for gig workers and the self-employed, known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance or PUA. He said more than 10,000 people are receiving PUA benefits, but he couldn’t give an exact number.
Another 42,000 people who applied for regular unemployment benefits were found to have valid applications, but never went on to file a weekly claim.
Gerstenfeld said 11,000 people had filed just one weekly claim so far, which - as a “waiting week” — still goes unpaid in Oregon. Department officials could not say exactly when the waiting week would be eliminated, despite Governor Kate Brown’s calls to do so.
Finally, Gerstenfeld said roughly 19,000 people had filed regular claims in the last few weeks, which were still being processed.
All those numbers leave a hole: tens of thousands of people, many of them stuck in limbo and calling jammed phone lines dozens of times per day as their savings evaporate.
The employment department announced an effort this week to get through the backlog of 38,000 of the oldest, most complicated regular unemployment claims. During what it’s calling Project Focus 100, some of the department’s most experienced staff will take two weeks away from incoming calls to focus on outreach involving backlogged claims.
Despite the two-week timeframe assigned, Erickson couldn’t say how long the backlog would take to tackle.
In response to questions from OPB, Gerstenfeld confirmed plans to withhold half of the $600 a week in federal benefits that laid-off workers are getting now, if they were overpaid during a prior period of unemployment – for example, during the Great Recession. To offset those over-payments, the state is already keeping 100% of some people’s regular unemployment benefits. That’s led to heightened anxiety at a time when economic prospects are grim.
Erickson apologized again for the pain some Oregonians have felt as their livelihoods vanished and no safety net appeared.
“In these uncertain times, waiting for confirmation of your unemployment benefits can be agonizing,” she said. “And for the thousands of Oregonians who are still waiting, I apologize.”
But she was apparently flummoxed by a question from the Salem Statesman Journal about when the department started preparing for mass layoffs, given that countries around the world went into lockdowns before the United States.
“The economic impact,” Erickson said, “wasn’t predictable, I guess.”