There were no fiery lawmaker questions. No classic Capitol grilling.
Instead, the director of the Oregon Employment Department apologized during a video hearing Wednesday to thousands of Oregonians still waiting for unemployment relief in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I know in these uncertain times, waiting for confirmation of your unemployment benefits can be agonizing,” said Kay Erickson in streaming testimony to the House Interim Committee on Business and Labor. “To the thousands of Oregonians who are still waiting, I do apologize.”
Erickson has kept a low profile during the coronavirus crisis, as the economic shutdown has driven more than 400,000 Oregonians to file new unemployment claims. The staggering job loss propelled the state’s unemployment rate from a near-record low of 3.5% in March to a post-Depression high of 14.2% in April. State economists expect the unemployment rate to soar above 22% this spring.
The Oregon Employment Department has struggled to process the crush of claims with outdated technology that includes components more than 30 years old. It hired hundreds of new employees, while simultaneously launching new benefit programs made possible by the federal CARES Act. Meanwhile, vulnerable workers with limited English proficiency found themselves effectively blocked from interpreters who could help file claims by phone.
Oregon’s elected leaders have increasingly expressed frustration and even outrage over the backlogs, jammed phone lines and technical problems that laid-off Oregonians have experienced. But none of that was evident during an hour of subdued testimony from Erickson and another department leader, David Gerstenfeld. Lawmakers did not directly question the OED officials, though committee chair Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, said some questions were submitted in advance and others would follow.
Rep. Shelley Boshart Davis, R-Albany, issued a statement afterwards blasting the committee for not asking live questions.
“This is a deeply human crisis and the state has failed miserably,” Davis said in her statement. “Oregonians deserve answers.”
What emerged at the hearing, from OED’s perspective, was a picture of slow but steady progress, essentially recited from a 45-page PowerPoint presentation.
The department says more than 90% of regular unemployment claims filed since mid-March have now been processed. Of those, Gerstenfeld said, about 224,000 have received a payment — a little more than half.
“One of our guiding principles has been focusing on getting the most benefits to the most people as quickly as possible,” he said.
That’s meant that thousands of older, more complicated claims have languished in the system. This week, OED announced a program dubbed Project Focus 100, aimed at clearing out a backlog of roughly 38,000 traditional claims. For two weeks, it plans to take some of its most experienced employees off the phone lines to tackle those claims. It is also formally deputizing staff at several WorkSource Oregon job centers to help field incoming calls.
That backlog doesn’t fully reflect how many Oregonians are still waiting for help. Gerstenfeld said about 50,000 applications for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, have been entered into the system to some degree, with more outstanding. PUA is the federal benefit for people who don’t qualify for regular unemployment benefits, including gig workers, contractors and the self-employed.
Those applications take longer to process, partly because the department has to determine claimants don’t qualify for regular unemployment in Oregon or any other state.
Gerstenfeld said the department is working with Google to make the PUA application more user-friendly and faster to process.
As the hearing clock ran out and the PowerPoint concluded, Holvey ended the session without questions, adding, “We need to help people as quickly as possible.”