(The Center Square) — The Oregon Employment Department says it has processed its backlog of unemployment claims, but the threat of layoffs still loom as counties see more health restrictions from Oregon Gov. Kate Brown.
Umatilla County saw its stay-at-home status restored last week by the governor while neighboring Morrow County has been placed back in phase one of reopening after sharp spikes in COVID-19 cases.
As more counties are added to the state’s high-risk list, the state could see far more unemployment claims.
Acting Director of the Oregon Employment Department David Gerstenfeld said he is anticipating “small spikes” in unemployment claims, but does not think it will be “anywhere near” the initial number of claims filed when the pandemic first hit Oregon hard.
“Even as we’ve seen small increases in the number of claims filed, we’re still seeing well, well below where we were at the peak of the filing and we’ve increased the staffing and changed our processes and gained experience so much that it would really take a massive increase in new claims to kind of derail the progress that we’re making,” Gerstenfeld said. “We’re working through those claims so much more quickly now that even regional fluctuations or even statewide minor fluctuations wouldn’t have too much impact on our ability to keep processing claims.”
On Wednesday, Gerstenfeld said during a press conference that the department processed its entire backlog of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) claims which totaled over 70,000.
Gerstenfeld said that all PUA claims filed between the weeks of March 29 through July 25 will still be eligible for the maximum $600 weekly payments despite the federal program’s expiration last week. Congress has made no decision this week to extend it.
Select unemployment filers stuck in the department’s adjudication process are now being paid benefits on the condition that they pay the money back if their claim is denied.
These early payments apply only to filers the department believes are likely to qualify, Gerstenfeld said, and may take up to “several weeks.”
As of July 21, 1,070 workers were processing claims across the department, according to data.
The department additionally reported that wait times for telephone support averaged 37 minutes as of Wednesday—down from 42 minutes on July 8 and 216 minutes in May.
“We know that some people still aren’t able to get through or having to wait on hold too long, either to get their call answered or to then be transferred to someone who can answer the specific issue with their claim,” Gerstenfeld said. “We know how frustrating this is and we know that people have tried anything to get the assistance they need and understand the urgency of them doing that.”
Gerstenfeld said that 450 staffers are working on PUA claims and another 500 are working on regular unemployment claims. He added that the department now has 225 adjudicators compared to the 80 it had at start of pandemic.
Employees are also being cross-trained across department branches to handle additional duties should more staff be needed.
The department reported 1,034 unemployment claims out of the initial 538,500 claims filed between March 15 and July 18 remain unprocessed.
Of those unemployment claims, one comes from Theodore Harris of Beaverton, one of three Oregonians The Center Square spoke with nearly a month ago.
Harris, who worked for a photography company and Fred Meyer, is still waiting on unemployment benefits even as he works at the Washington State Employment Security Department. Harris said his job at the department will end in roughly one to two weeks.
“This system is broken,” Harris said.
Jennifer Clampit Walsh of Toledo, Oregon, who worked as a waitress and office assistant, finally received her unemployment and PUA payments a couple of weeks ago, though she says she could not get through by calling directly.
Walsh said one department worker, Shauna, was largely responsible for helping getting her claims processed via a Facebook support page.
“She's been the savior of so many people who had given up hope of ever getting paid,” Walsh said. “The employment department is lucky to have her.”
Farm worker Jahnavi Rose of Medford qualified for and received unemployment payments several weeks ago. She said she is still waiting on two weekly payments that went to the wrong address.
In June, the unemployment rate for Oregon was 11.2 percent, according to the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis.
The Oregon legislature meets Monday to debate big budget cuts amid an estimated $2.7 billion deficit to state revenue.