Wyden fields questions about federal aid linked to pandemic
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, in Oregon's first statewide online town hall meeting, fielded variations of the same question Friday, April 17: Show me the (federal) money.
Wyden was able to win an expansion of unemployment benefits to new categories of workers — and a $600-per-week increase in benefits for the next four months, through July 31 — as part of the $2 trillion aid package Congress passed last month to deal with the business shutdowns prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.
The package includes $350 billion for aid to businesses with fewer than 500 workers, but that amount is exhausted and the Treasury Department seeks another $250 billion.
The online meeting, livestreamed via Facebook, was a first for the Oregon Democrat, who has conducted 970 in-person town halls in the 24 years he has been a senator.
Wyden spent much of the 90-minute session hearing stories from people like Laura Mattson of Beaverton, a 59-year-old gig worker whose husband has underlying medical conditions and cannot work. She finally was able to file a claim for unemployment — the package extends benefits to gig workers and others not covered before — and she's still stymied by her inability to find out when she will receive a separate $1,200 check intended as a one-time stimulus payment.
The Internal Revenue Service now has a web link, but unless the IRS has a bank routing number and checking or savings account number from 2018 or 2019 tax returns, paper checks may take several weeks to reach people.
"That website is completely broken. With everybody I know, it's the same message — there's nothing on file for you," Mattson said. "I am worried about timing."
"I can only imagine what kind of agony it is," Wyden said from his office in Washington, D.C.
"I almost wish that when I listen to a gig worker or somebody who is self-employed, I could walk in and resolve it all myself. But it is not something a senator can do."
Wyden did say benefits will be retroactive. He also said he is pressing Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, whose department oversees the unemployment benefit system, to do more to help the 50 states that actually make the payments. The most recent congressional package includes $1 billion in aid for states to do so.
"I have been pushing them to do more to help the states get these checks out," Wyden said.
But the computers used by the Oregon Employment Department rely on COBOL, a programming language that dates back 60 years, when mainframe computers were the norm. Largely because of that, Oregon still requires a waiting week for laid-off workers to claim benefits. Gov. Kate Brown directed the agency to do away with it after news disclosures by The Oregonian/Oregon Live and a letter from Oregon's congressional delegation.
"As much agony as this has caused, I can see it in your face," Wyden told Mattson.
Oregon has increased its claims processing staff from 100 to 400, and plans to boost that number. The state unemployment trust fund was at $5 billion before the pandemic.
Another person told Wyden she was able to pay rent for April, but was left with just $93 in her checking account.
Wyden said unemployment benefits are retroactive under the terms of the aid package.
When the extra benefits expire July 31, Wyden said he will push to link future benefits to specific economic indicators. He also said, as he did in an earlier interview with Pamplin Media Group, to make permanent an expansion of benefits to gig and part-time workers, freelancers and independent contractors, and the self-employed.
Wyden is the senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, which has authority over the unemployment trust fund because employers pay taxes into them. He won the expansion during talks with Chairman Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who spoke for the Trump administration.
"I said unemployment in 2020 is different from unemployment in 1935. Nobody ever heard of a gig worker in 1935," when the unemployment system began. "These negotiations went on day after day. I said I was not leaving this (Finance Committee) room down the corner until you get these people — who are such a large part of the American economy — covered going forward."
Wyden is now negotiating the terms of a request by the administration for $250 billion more for Small Business Administration aid to businesses, on top of $350 billion that is almost exhausted. The Senate's majority Republicans sought to pass it without additions, but Democrats sought to add billions for aid to hospitals, first responders such as police and firefighters, and state and local governments.
"We are trying to work out an agreement to address all of these issues," Wyden said. "I think we can do it quickly."
A different format
Wyden pledged upon his election in 1996 he would conduct a town hall meeting in each of Oregon's 36 counties annually. He is a two-time winner of the MVP award from the Town Hall Project, whose executive director, Nathan Williams, moderated the online meeting.
There were some differences in the formats.
Wyden did not see questions in advance of the online session, but the Town Hall Project selected participants from across Oregon based on previously submitted questions. More than 900 people watched at any given time — and the meeting drew thousands of views on Facebook — but most viewers could not take part live.
For the in-person meetings, audience members obtain tickets and numbers are drawn lottery-style for a chance to ask a question.
Wyden already held metro-area meetings Jan. 5 in Tigard and Portland and Jan. 18 in Wilsonville.
"We are going to resume those meetings just as soon as it is safe to do so," he said in closing.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.