The Oregon Employment Department says it’s adding more staff and resources to process approximately 70,000 claims for gig workers and self-employed Oregonians under the recently created Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

Oregon has received over half a million regular unemployment claims since the onset of the pandemic, with 99% of all regular claims processed thus far, according to OED. Nearly $2 billion in benefits have been allocated to Oregonians since the onset of the pandemic.

The employment department seeks to process 5,000 PUA claims by the end of this week, incrementally increasing its capacity to process 2,500 more claims per week moving forward. Acting director David Gerstenfeld said the department aims to process the entirety of the state’s backlog of PUA claims by August 8. 

“This is an aggressive goal, but we know how much people are relying on us to get them their benefits. So we’re putting a huge effort into getting the most benefits to the most Oregonians in the quickest ways possible,” Gerstenfeld said.

According to Gerstenfeld, wait times for calls have decreased thanks to the increased staff but isn’t anywhere near where the department would like  — on average, people waited on the phone for over 90 minutes Wednesday to file for benefits.

Another challenge OED faces is processing “more complex” claims, such as claims for school teachers and employees. As of last week, teachers at some of Oregon’s largest districts still hadn’t received any of the financial assistance they’d been promised, when their unions agreed to furloughs. 

Gerstenfeld said the department is legally required to examine each claim from school employees when summer break starts in order to determine if they’ll have jobs in the fall.

Gerstenfeld said the department will continue to update the public on its progress with processing claims. While Oregonians are able to receive an additional $600 per week through July, he’d like to see the federal government provide further assistance.

“We hope that Congress will do much more though. We’re seeing the highest unemployment rate that Oregon has ever seen — we’re very grateful for the patience of many Oregonians as we strive to get everybody the benefits that they’re eligible for.”