FILE - Oregon Employment Department

The Oregon Employment Department in the state capitol of Salem, Oregon.

(The Center Square) – Over four months after Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s stay-at-home order was issued in March, the Oregon Employment Department remains buried under thousands of unprocessed unemployment claims.

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program was created by the CARES Act passed by Congress in March to aid those who have lost income due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Friday, the department launched new software automating replacing much of the manual weekly file claim process.

Oregon Unemployment Insurance Division Director David Gerstenfeld expressed optimism during a press briefing on Wednesday that the system may streamline the process allowing the department to make headway on its backlog of claims.

“Our teams were working with our vendors throughout the day and throughout the night,” Gerstenfeld said. “We know that this continues to be an incredible [source of] stress and that people are facing incredibly dire situations.”

Gerstenfeld urged Oregonians not to contact the department about their weekly unemployment claims if they are already approved for benefits. Instead, he recommended that people refile their weekly claim to avoid overwhelming the department's often jammed phone lines.

Last week, Gerstenfeld said that 10,900 unemployment claims were processed—far below the department’s weekly benchmark of 12,500. Around 2,600 initial unemployment claims need to be processed.

Between late Friday and Wednesday morning, 5,600 new PUA claims were filed, which Gerstenfeld partly attributed to duplicate applications. Approximately 53,000 PUA claims remain unprocessed, he said.

The department’s phone system crashed Tuesday after being retooled to increase capacity, according to Gerstenfeld. The phone system was operational by Wednesday and is staffed by 35 workers.

The Oregon Employment Department confirmed to The Center Square in an email that nine Oregon National Guard members are helping operate department phone lines.

The $600 in extra weekly unemployment benefits created through the CARES Act expires on Saturday should Congress fail to pass an additional stimulus package.

The Oregon state legislature has proposed sending $500 relief checks to anxious Oregonians still waiting on unemployment benefits. The details of the proposal are still unknown.

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.