The new head of the Oregon Employment Department faced lawmakers Monday, just hours into his new job.
David Gerstenfeld took the helm of the beleaguered department this weekend, after Gov. Kate Brown asked for, and received, the resignation of director Kay Erickson. Erickson's brief resignation letter was dated May 30, the same day Oregon's senior U.S. Senator Ron Wyden called for her to step down.
"This litany of incompetence and unresponsiveness has hit the breaking point," Wyden wrote Saturday morning.
Oregon’s unemployment benefits crisis reached a boiling point last week when the department revealed that only about half of the 445,000 people who’ve applied for traditional benefits since mid-March have received them.
Many applicants were found ineligible for benefits or never filed a weekly claim. Others went on to seek Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits through a federal program for gig workers, the self-employed and newer workers.
Still, thousands of others have been trapped in claims limbo, with phone lines jammed and few places to turn for help.
On Monday, Gerstenfeld appeared before state lawmakers for the third time in less than a week, this time as OED’s interim director.
“We feel the pressure for everybody that is still waiting for us to get them their benefits,” he told the Senate Interim Committee on Labor and Business. “And that weighs on me … it weighs on all of our employees.”
Gerstenfeld has led two divisions in the department, including the Unemployment Insurance Division. He projected deep knowledge of the unemployment system but did not propose radical change.
In fact, it’s unclear how much the interim director can do to change the course of an unwieldy system that relies on outdated technology.
Senators, including Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, pressed Gerstenfeld on why the department has yet to modernize its archaic computer system, despite having received $86 million in federal funding a decade ago.
“It is a complicated, risky project,” Gerstenfeld said. “We spent a lot of time looking at other states that had modernized. Some of them did it well. Almost every state had at least some challenges and some states had failed modernizations.”
“We really didn’t want to be in the situation that some states have been of spending that money and, at the end, not having a system that worked.”
Gerstenfeld said the department is getting close to picking a vendor to do the multi-year modernization. It will come too late to help those whose jobs have been ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic.
Gerstenfeld and OED deputy director Jeannine Beatrice expressed commitment to increasing communication in the short term — both with lawmakers and laid-off Oregonians.
“We hear what you need,” Beatrice said. “You need information from us about what is happening.”
Gerstenfeld said the department is activating phone lines this week specifically for people with questions about PUA benefits. OED hadn’t previously had phone support for the new program, so applicants with questions often relied on each other, sharing information on Facebook and other social media.
Those groups lit up with activity when the department recently started sending out automated messages simply confirming that people’s PUA applications had been received. They lit up again Monday as people shared the new phone number to call with PUA questions.
Gerstenfeld reiterated the goal of a two-week push, called Project Focus 100, to work through 38,000 of the oldest, most complex claims in the regular unemployment queue.
After Monday’s hearing, committee vice-chair Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said he’s been in touch with dozens of constituents who are desperately seeking answers about their unemployment claims.
He said he’s hopeful, partly because of his interactions with Gerstenfeld, who he described as engaged and helpful.
“I know employees are working as hard as they can,” Knopp said, “and they are completely overwhelmed. That doesn’t absolve people from the state from getting them answers and their claims so people can pay their rent, their car payments and pay for food.”
How will Knopp know if Gerstenfeld is succeeding?
If he clears the backlog of people who haven’t heard back about their claims in the next couple of weeks.
“That’s the goal, get people answers,” he said.
Lauren Dake contributed to this report.