FILE - Oregon Capitol Building

The Oregon state capitol building in Salem, Oregon.

(The Center Square) — Jobless Oregonians can expect several weeks of federal aid, but not much more, the Oregon Employment Department’s lead official said at a Tuesday Senate hearing detailing the agency’s progress.

In the months since half a million Oregonians filed for unemployment in March due to the economic downturn from the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of struggling Oregonians have experienced jammed phone lines and technical difficulties filing their claims.

Oregon’s July unemployment rate of 10.4 percent still sits near the U.S. national average of 10.2 percent that month.

In press briefings over past weeks, OED Acting Director David Gerstenfeld has reported that the department is steadily automating tasks, updating software, hiring more staff, and doubling its available phone lines to 1,300.

On Tuesday, Gerstenfeld reported that 552,600 regular unemployment claims—which include duplicates—have been filed by 538,600 people between March 15 and August 22.

As of August 27, 500 claims filed the previous day remained to be processed, most of which were filed a day beforehand, Gerstenfeld said.

Around 21,000 Oregonians are still waiting on benefits and another 94,000 are ineligible for benefits, due to such factors are their occupation or income levels, according to Gerstenfeld.

Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Milwaukie, suggested the OED look into providing summaries to claimants on why their claims were denied.

The department was approved for FEMA’s $44 billion Lost Wages Assistance Program last week, which boosts regular unemployment benefits by $300 a week.

The weekly grants amount to just half of the original $600 provided through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program included in the CARES Act passed by Congress. It took the OED until early August to process its initial backlog of 70,000 PUA claims from March.

The maximum amount of FEMA-provided assistance was $400, but the Oregon legislature has not approved paying for the extra $100 in state money.

Gerstenfeld said Tuesday that the federal aid would apply retroactively for claims filed between July 26 through August 28. He added that the aid would probably last for three to five weeks, but it would depend on how FEMA’s funds fair in coming days.

The OED still has no definitive date for when Oregonians may receive the extra benefits, Gerstenfeld told state lawmakers, because of the time required to input the necessary computer code into the department’s aging computer system.

Federal law, Gerstenfeld said, prohibits the state from simply putting the federal money into the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund.

The U.S. Department of Labor additionally covers as much as 75 percent of the fund, according to Gerstenfeld.

Sen. Mark Haas, D-Beaverton, likened past audits of the OED’s aging system to “tsunami warnings to coastal towns that shrug their shoulders.”

In a May 2019 report to the legislature by then OED Director Kay Erickson, 31 of the OED’s computer systems were built in 1990 and were in serious need of replacement.

Oregon’s 2017-2019 budget allocated another $13.7 million in state money for modernizing its computer system by 2025, according to Erickson’s report. Most claims at the time were still filed by hand back then.

Since 2009, the state has sat on around $80 million in federal funds intended to pay for updates to its aging computers, according to a report by the Oregonian.

During the hearing, Haas also read a letter sent to him by a constituent still waiting on benefits.

“We still have a battle here on the ground that I don’t think we’re winning,” Haas said.

“We know that it’s a crisis,” Gerstenfeld said. “It’s horrible. It’s not fair to those people. We’re focused on doing everything we can to fix it. For the people that haven’t yet been helped, I totally get that doesn’t matter and that we’re still in a crisis and that we need to be fixing it.”

Gerstenfeld further suggested employers may see greater tax burdens to bankroll further unemployment benefits.

“Ultimately, there will have to be some increase in collection of payroll taxes because the trust fund is paying out a lot of benefits,” Gerstenfeld said. “We do not anticipate it being a severe increase, or a real significant one.”

Washington lawmakers have also demanded answers from the OED in a letter sent to Gerstenfeld in late August concerning unprocessed claims filed by their constituents. The director said he would address the issue.

The state legislature gave the ok for $500 relief checks to be paid out to Oregonians still waiting on unemployment benefits last month. The program has since run out.

The Oregon Senate will be hearing additional testimony from Gerstenfeld on Wednesday and public testimony from Oregonians on Thursday.