Washington capitol building

The Washington capitol building in Olympia, Washington

(The Center Square) — The Oregon Employment Department faces a lawsuit alleging it broke state and federal law in its handling of unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lawsuit was filed by the Oregon Law Center and Legal Aid Services of Oregon on behalf of 13 claimants who have yet to receive either unemployment insurance (UI) payments or pandemic unemployment assistance (PUA) benefits. 

“OED’s failures have forced an untold number of Oregonians to live without the critical financial safety net of unemployment benefit money for a staggering 15 weeks – with catastrophic consequences for Oregonians who were low-income even before losing their jobs,” the suit states. “The current delays facing Oregonians who have applied for traditional UI, PUA, and PEUC are patently unreasonable.”

It seeks an order from the Multnomah County Circuit Court to compel OED to process unemployment claims within four weeks of filing.

Among the named respondents is acting director David Gerstenfeld, who assumed leadership of the department following Kay Erickson’s firing from the office by Governor Kate Brown in May.

In a press briefing earlier this month, Gerstenfeld said that PUA claims may not be paid out for another month. Claims sent to the agency’s adjudication process can see delays of up to 14 weeks, according to Gerstenfeld.

The department has received more than 500,000 claims since the pandemic hit in March and many still await benefits.

According to the lawsuit, the department deliberately discriminated against non-English speakers by not offering online applications for regular unemployment benefits in non-English languages.

The suit argues the department’s actions violate Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which bars discrimination based on national origin in the provision of public benefits such as unemployment insurance. 

It was not until earlier this week that the employment department launched a designated language hotline.

Among the demands listed in the lawsuit is a court order requiring that unemployment claims be processed by at least four weeks from the date of application.

Petitioners also demand the OED automatically process any denied unemployment claim as a PUA application. They also demand that claims be processed in the order they were received.

The OED did not immediately respond to comment. There are no hearings scheduled for the lawsuit.

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.