(The Center Square) — Oregon lawmakers heard from dozens of jobless Oregonians still waiting on benefits during a Thursday state hearing in which they revisited the Oregon Employment Department’s long overdue IT overhaul.
One claimant, Abraham Sword, said he applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance 12 weeks ago and has yet to receive “a single cent of benefits.”
Another claimant, Amy N. Milligan, said she has waited on her benefits for three straight months and demanded to know why Oregon applied for FEMA’s Lost Wages Assistance Program weeks after its creation on August 8.
Milligan further pointed to the $85 million in federal money the Oregon legislature was provided in 2009 to replace its decades-old computer system when Gov. Kate Brown was Oregon’s Secretary of State.
Oregon Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, grilled his colleagues on that same point, referencing previous state audits detailing the understaffed department’s aging computer systems and sluggish paperwork flow.
“It’s clear that these reports sit on the shelf and collect dust,” Findley said.
In one testimony, Dan Hubble recounted how his daughter, a Myrtle Creek teacher named Tina Brown, has “not seen a dime” in unemployment benefits after weeks of trying to talk to an OED representative.
Brown is a mother of three children, Hubble said, and was denied benefits because of an overpayment of $200 four years ago. Brown is now entirely dependent on family, he said.
Hubble used the opportunity to call for OED Acting Director David Gerstenfeld’s firing and demanded the department be handed over to him.
Another single-mother of two, Rica Torrez, filed for unemployment benefits on June 26 after she left her job in child protective services while pregnant with her third child. Torrez said she has survived on her savings and cannot keep up with her bills much longer.
Jahnavi Rose, who The Center Square spoke with in July, said it took 11 weeks before she received her unemployment benefits after hearing nothing but busy signals from OED phone lines.
By late July, she received her unemployment benefits after she was informed they had been sent to the wrong address. A month later, Rose said she has yet to receive her PUA payments.
Robert D. Ewbank of Eugene slammed lawmakers for offering their constituents “zero ideas” of when they will receive benefits.
“You have blown a chance to be heroes and instead have become the ineffectual goats that have taken the lives of thousands of people down with your sitting on your hands this whole time,” Ewbank said.
Lawmakers expressed outrage and concern for the troubling testimonies heard during Thursday’s meeting, but proposed no immediate course of action.
Oregon Sen. Mark Haas, D-Beaverton, said he was “moved” by testimonies heard on Thursday and compared the pain of the state’s recession to its protests for civil rights.
“We have a social justice movement in this country and in this state,” Haas said. “To me, for these people who have been calling our offices for months now, this is about social justice. They’re at a place where they’ve lost their job and they go to rely on their insurance benefits that they deserve and it’s not there. Where’s the justice in that?”
Gerstenfeld has asked the federal government for permanent programs for expanding benefits during the current recession and beyond to more efficiently distribute benefits.
Gerstenfeld said this week that he expects the FEMA money to be paid out by the end of this month.
He also requested that the state legislature address waiving the mandatory waiting week for unemployment benefits in light of the current recession.
The state’s $4.4 billion unemployment insurance trust fund, Gerstenfeld projected on Wednesday, will probably remain solvent and hit its lowest point in 2022.
Oregon's unemployment rate was 10.4 percent in July compared to the nationwide unemployment rate of 10.2 percent that month.