The Oregon Employment Department's Pandemic Unemployment Assistance website on July 8, 2020.

The Oregon Employment Department's Pandemic Unemployment Assistance website on July 8, 2020.

OPB

Two big themes emerged from a media briefing Wednesday with David Gerstenfeld, the acting director of the Oregon Employment Department:

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Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, claims have become the albatross around the system’s neck.

And the rise in COVID-19 cases is impacting the health of department employees themselves.

“Unfortunately, our employees are not immune to this virus,” Gerstenfeld said. “Since the beginning of April, seven employees have tested positive for COVID-19, including five in the past week in four different locations.”

Related: Oregon's Beleaguered Employment Department Seeks To Explain Payment Delays

As the department shifts its focus to the labor-intensive processing of PUA claims for gig, contract workers and the self-employed, the magnitude of the crisis facing these non-traditional applicants has come into sharp relief.

Gerstenfeld said the department still must process about 61,000 initial PUA applications to meet the Aug. 8 goal of its “Focus PUA” push. The department has yet to meet its weekly processing targets.

“While we intended to get through them more quickly, you should not plan to receive your PUA benefits until at least Aug. 8 if your claim has not yet been processed,” he said.

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Since the PUA program launched in late April, more than 98,000 people have applied for help. Only about 23,000 of those have been paid.

Even people who have begun to receive payment may experience stops and starts. That’s because the employment department has to manually process weekly PUA claims, causing delays.

“The good news on this front is we are in the last phase of launching a new form that will automate the weekly claims process,” Gerstenfeld said. “We know this is incredibly frustrating.”

Related: Applying For Unemployment Is Even Harder For Workers With Limited English

Gerstenfeld announced several additional tools, including a language-assistance hotline — 503-606-6969 — for people who need help filing initial or weekly claims. Until now,

people with limited English proficiency have faced serious obstacles

filing regular unemployment claims.

The news of five confirmed COVID-19 cases in the last week may increase the fear some department employees have expressed to OPB about the safety of working in call centers as staffing ramps up.

“There’s very little mask wearing. There’s zero social distancing,” said one claims processor at OED’s Wilsonville facility, who requested their name be withheld to protect their job. “And we’re all inside.”

The employee said new hires often huddle with more experienced personnel to work through claims issues. They described sitting directly across from another worker, separated by a short partition.

Gerstenfeld said workstations at the Wilsonville contact center are spaced 6 feet apart and that the department is in discussions with a labor union about requiring the use of face coverings in all offices.

“I cannot overstate how challenging it has been for our dedicated employees to process claims, while also being worried about their own health and safety,” he said.

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