It’s a highly unusual move.
After a hearing Wednesday in which lawmakers did not question leaders of the Oregon Employment Department about systemic problems delivering unemployment benefits to thousands of Oregonians, the House Interim Committee on Business and Labor has asked for a redo.
Committee chair Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, recalled both director Kay Erickson and senior official David Gerstenfeld to answer questions during a three-hour Saturday session.
Holvey was “unsatisfied” with Wednesday’s session, according to a statement from House Democrats. During that video hearing, OED leaders gave a roughly hourlong slideshow presentation on the state’s unemployment insurance system.
Lawmakers did not have time to ask questions, though some were submitted in advance.
In an email to OPB, Holvey said it was important for the Legislature to hear the agency explain its process so it can ask informed questions.
“We need a thorough explanation of what they are doing to improve communication and process the backlog of claims while ensuring the committee members had all of their questions answered,” he wrote.
“I don’t feel like that happened yesterday which is why I asked the Speaker to provide us an additional opportunity for the agency to answer the committee’s questions.”
More than 400,000 Oregonians have filed new unemployment claims since mid-March.
The employment department has been overwhelmed by the magnitude of the unemployment crisis wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. It has struggled to process the deluge of claims with outdated technology.
The department’s leaders said Wednesday that only about half of the people whose regular unemployment claims have been processed have received payment so far.
OED hasn’t disclosed the number of people receiving payment under the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which provides benefits to gig workers and the self-employed.
Since the economy began shutting down in March, the department has hired hundreds of workers and launched several new federal benefit programs. This week it announced a plan to tackle a backlog of tens of thousands of the oldest, most complicated unemployment claims in its system.
But lawmakers have increasingly heard from desperate constituents, some with claims that are two months old, who can’t get through by phone and don’t know where to turn.
When those people call committee vice chair Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, her office tries to respond within 48 hours.
“I see you and I hear you,” she said of her message. “And that’s what I think is the missing part.”