UPDATE (June 23, 4:30 p.m.) - It's been six weeks since the Portland Public Schools board approved a furlough cutting staff pay – and the school week – by 20%.
Since then, several other school districts and colleges followed suit, taking advantage of the opportunity to save money for next school year, while protecting educators and school staff from pay cuts.
But teachers and union leaders report school employees still haven't received the weekly $600 and unemployment benefits included in Oregon's Work Share program.
“Educators took a risk in accepting the furlough because we wanted to ensure the best possible school year for our students in the fall,” outgoing Portland Association of Teachers president Suzanne Cohen said. “While some delay was to be expected, this prolonged wait is very difficult for many of our members — some who have partners who are also waiting for unemployment.”
Oregon’s largest school districts adopted the Work Share program as a way to save money. With districts likely to face revenue shortfalls because of COVID-19, the Work Share program was heralded as a way for districts to save millions of dollars without having to eliminate or reduce staff.
Colleges adopted the program too, including Portland State University, University of Oregon and Lane Community College.
“Many educators around the state, along with thousands of other Oregonians who have applied for unemployment but have not received relief, deserve to see this resolved quickly,” said president of the Oregon Education Association John Larson in a statement to OPB.
“These are resources that will immediately go back into local economies and help our state move forward.”
Earlier this month, the Oregon Employment Department pledged to lessen the backlog of unemployment claims by hiring more staff and volunteers to process claims and make applying for unemployment more accessible.
In a statement sent to OPB after this story originally published, the Oregon Employment Department said a “staggering increase in demand for Work Share” has led to a delay in processing claims quickly. The time “between receiving an employer’s plan and paying the first weekly benefit is approximately 8 weeks."
OED said 1,231 employers have participated in the program between March 15 and June 13. But for a year before that, there were only 168 employers participating. And with more employers participating, they've had to increase the number of staff on the program. Before COVID-19, it was two to four staff. Now there are more than 50, with plans to hire more people to handle the workload.
“We have been hiring new team members each week…with a goal of bringing on more than 100 new team members to focus on Work Share within the next month,” OED shared in a statement to OPB.
For employers like PPS and PSU, the $600 weekly payments for employees will end July 24.
With the delays from the Oregon Employment Department, PPS has encouraged staff to apply for a salary advance from the district if needed. In June, PPS said fewer than 12 people have applied.
A note on PPS' Work Share program page said that as of June 11, "PPS employees will receive initial payments in approximately 2-3 weeks."