Claims for unemployment benefits are surging into the Oregon Employment Department as businesses are forced to shut down as a result of the coronavirus epidemic. 

“At this moment, there are thousands of Oregon employees being laid off in real time, particularly in our industry,” said Jason Brandt, president of the Oregon Lodging & Restaurant Association on Tuesday. He spoke after Gov. Kate Brown ordered bars and restaurants to shut down all but takeout and delivery options.

Layoffs were also spreading throughout the hotel and travel industry, sports and entertainment businesses and numerous other retailers. Some of Oregon’s biggest food and retail names, including Powell’s Books and the McMenamin’s chain of pubs, theaters and hotels, announced massive layoffs.

The big spike in unemployment inquiries led to outages in the online claims system for the Oregon Employment Department Monday and Tuesday morning. Gail Krumenauer, a department spokeswoman, said the agency is beefing up its capacity to take applications both online and in person.

At the same time, the agency is looking at several proposals to liberalize its programs.

“Our end goal is to get relief into the hands of people as soon as we can,” Kremenauer said.

For workers – and businesses – caught up in the economic shoals of the system, here are some common questions and answers:

My employer closed because of the epidemic. Can I get unemployment benefits?

Generally speaking, you should be eligible. You can’t collect benefits for any period where you’re still receiving pay from your employer, either in the form of paid sick leave or vacation. 

Business and labor officials alike are pushing the state to waive any requirements that applicants search for work and that they not be able to collect benefits for the first week they are unemployed.

Krumenauer said department officials now are having “active conversations” about whether they can indeed waive those requirements.

State officials are also urging businesses to participate in the Employment Department’s Work Share program.  That allows them to reduce their workers’ hours instead of resorting solely to layoffs to reduce payroll.  The state will then provide benefits to workers that will make up some of their hourly loss in wages.

What if I’ve been quarantined because of exposure to the coronavirus and am unable to work?

The U.S. Department of Labor announced last week that it is now allowing states to provide benefits for workers quarantined “with the expectation of returning to work after the quarantine.”

In addition, the federal government said states can also provide benefits for workers who leave a job due to the risk of being infected, or to care for a family member.

Oregon employment officials are also studying whether they can administratively take those steps.

What if I’m in the gig economy, like a driver for Uber and Lyft?

If you’re self-employed – like the typical ride-share driver – you are not covered by unemployment insurance. 

The Trump administration and Congress have been moving toward providing economic aid to workers and business that could provide some aid to self-employed workers. State legislators are also looking at putting together some kind of aid package to Oregonians.

What kind of paid sick leave benefits are Oregon employers required to offer?

The Oregon Legislature in 2015 passed a law requiring employers with at least 10 workers to provide at least five days of paid sick leave per year.  If a firm has operations in Portland, the threshold is six employees. 

Only 12 states require paid sick leave, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, but critics are pointing to the Oregon law’s inadequacy in the face of the current pandemic.

“Oregon’s sick-leave law doesn’t rise to the crisis of the day,” said Janet Bauer, a policy analyst at the Oregon Center for Public Policy, a non-profit that advocates for lower-income Oregonians. 

She noted that it’s typical for someone to be asked to stay home for 14 days if they’ve been exposed someone testing positive for Covid-19.  Such a change would require legislation.

What will this do to businesses facing a big rise in unemployment insurance rates due to an epidemic out of their control?

Business and labor groups are both asking for the state to waive higher rates on businesses facing major layoffs because of coronavirus-induced layoffs. That’s another area of study over at the Employment Department. Federal and state lawmakers are also looking at substantial aid packages that could help businesses weather the pandemic.

Some companies are seeing a surge in business. Are they hiring?

Amazon, the online retailing giant, made big headlines Monday by announcing that it will hire another 100,000 full and part-time workers to meet the big jump in demand from consumers largely confined to their homes.  It’s also giving workers a temporary $2-an-hour raise to keep them on the job. 

Krumenauer at the state employment department said several other employers – particularly at grocery stores – are also continuing to hire.