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Lawmakers set aside $35 million for people still awaiting benefits, who were denied or who did not apply.

PMG PHOTO: PETER WONG - The Executive Building in Salem, which houses the Department of Administrative Services. It is one of two state agencies, plus participating financial institutions, preparing to take part in a program to issue $500 checks to people who have been awaiting unemployment benefits, whose claims were denied or who never filed in the first place. Details of the launch were to be announced later this week.Thousands of Oregonians who await unemployment benefits, whose claims were denied or who never filed in the first place will soon have a chance to obtain one-time $500 checks from a state fund.

Legislators, who set aside a $35 million fund at a meeting of the Emergency Board on July 14, are preparing to roll out the program with the help of two state agencies and participating financial institutions. Applicants will have to meet some eligibility requirements but the application form will be kept simple.

"The goal of this is to provide a small amount of payment as quickly as possible," said Lisa Taylor, a spokeswoman for Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem. "We wanted to make this with as low a barrier as possible."

She said more details will be announced after the participating institutions — mostly credit unions but believed to include at least one bank — sign contracts with the Department of Administrative Services and Department of Justice. The Employment Department is not involved. She said lawmakers do not want to prompt a run on participating institutions.

Taylor did say that legislators expect the entire $35 million, which comes from the state's share of federal coronavirus relief funds, will be spent.

An official of SELCO Community Credit Union confirmed Friday, Aug. 7, that hers is one of the participants. She said people will not have to be members of the participating credit unions to apply for money.

"We just see it as a way to help out our fellow Oregonians when it's clear a lot of people need help right now," Tiffany Washington, a SELCO senior vice president, said in an interview. "For a credit union, that is at the core of what we do. We had an opportunity to do our part in helping deliver this money to people."

SELCO has most of its branches in Eugene/Springfield (six) and Bend/Redmond (five), but also in Portland, Salem, Albany and Burns.

"A lot of work has been put in to create a really simple application," Washington said. "Our hope is that people will be able to visit a credit union and leave with their money."

The amounts will not count against unemployment benefits.

To qualify for $500 checks, people will have to be at least age 18, prove their identity and their current Oregon residence so that there is no duplication and no out-of-state beneficiaries. They also must attest on the application form that their monthly pretax income was $4,000 or less — and that they are experiencing severe or indirect financial hardship resulting from Gov. Kate Brown's executive orders that virtually shut down business activity and public life during the coronavirus pandemic.

If applicants submit false information and are caught, they will have to repay the money.

Also, check recipients must not be current on their unemployment benefits. "Current" means that, except for the current claim week, they have received all of their regular unemployment benefits or federal benefits under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. The latter program is for people newly eligible for benefits, such as self-employed workers, independent contractors, freelancers and gig and temporary workers.

If people are "current" in their benefit payments, Taylor said, "you are not eligible for this program."

The Employment Department recently cleared a backlog of 70,000 applications for that federal program. But because the agency is required under federal law to determine whether applicants may be eligible for regular benefits — which are drawn from a state trust fund — thousands are awaiting adjudication of their claims before they draw any money. The agency is beginning to advance benefits to some of these people.

"Current" excludes the supplemental $600-per-week federal benefits that Congress authorized under the CARES Act back in March. That program expired July 31 — the actual qualifying week in Oregon ended July 25 — and Congress and the Trump administration are deadlocked on whether there will be an extension. Employment Department officials say people who were eligible for the supplemental benefits before July 25 will still receive them.

A top state administrator warned legislators that it might take weeks to set up the program. But it is being launched in about four weeks, which Taylor says is akin to light speed for government.

"I get the sense that everybody is pedaling as fast as we can," SELCO's Washington said.

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