FILE - Oregon Employment Department

The Oregon Employment Department.

(The Center Square) — The Oregon Employment Department is slowly but surely making progress on working through its pile of unemployment claims as negotiations over federal aid fizzle in Congress, department leadership says.

Acting OED Director David Gerstenfeld said during a press conference on Wednesday that the department is making progress on processing its months-old backlog of unemployment and pandemic unemployment assistance (PUA) claims.

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, created through the CARES Act passed by Congress in March, paid out $600 additional weekly payments to American workers who lost jobs because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It will end Friday if no deal is reached in Congress to extend it.

Even if the program sees new life, Gerstenfeld said that any new extension could take weeks to input into the department’s computer systems under such short notice.

Jobless Oregonians could potentially be short on cash for weeks until then.

"Even if the legislation were to pass today and be signed into law, we would not be able to start making those payments under the new program next week," Gerstenfeld said. "It just takes longer than that to do the coding.”

Since the pandemic hit Oregon’s economy back in March, the department has struggled to process the thousands of initial unemployment and PUA claims it received.

Gerstenfeld said that the department now has 420 workers processing PUA claims and has a new online PUA application form.

On Wednesday, the department processed approximately 70 percent of the 70,000 PUA claims received in March. Around 19,000 remain, Gerstenfeld said.

Approximately 111,680 PUA claims were received, according to Gerstenfeld, and 75,338 have been entered into the system. He said 29,404 people have been paid benefits and during the week of July 19 the department processed 21,466 claims.

Gerstenfeld said the department is now processing weekly PUA claims much faster and that he expects continued progress in coming weeks.

For thousands of struggling Oregonians out of work, filing an unemployment claim can also mean getting stuck in the adjudication process—or the system of settling disputed or denied claims.

Filers can expect 12 to 14 weeks to get their claims resolved through adjudication, Gerstenfeld said.

"Oregon and many other states historically have not met that target even during normal times," Gerstenfeld said. "And a lot of that is due to the pretty intensive amount of work even to do the adjudication process and the historical under-funding from the federal government for administering the unemployment insurance programs."

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the department had 80 adjudicators handling claims, according to Gerstenfeld. It now has 210 and is looking to recruit 90 more by transferring workers from other public divisions or hiring third-party contractors.

Human claims assistance is still hard to come by. As of July 28, the average wait time for calls is 42 minutes, the department reported.

Oregon's unemployment rate was 11.2 percent in June according to the state.

Last week, more than 1.43 million Americans filed for unemployment, marking the second week that unemployment claims increased.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.