Virus outbreak fells 11 at Employment Department in Wilsonville
Work will continue on unemployment claims, although more employees may have to work from home as a result of an outbreak of COVID-19 that has infected 11 Oregon Employment Department workers in the past month at its Wilsonville processing center.
Acting Director David Gerstenfeld said Wednesday, Dec. 2, that employees were informed about the options at a meeting there earlier in the day.
"It will cause significant disruptions in our ability to get work done at the pace we have been," he told reporters during a weekly conference call.
"We are not closing the building, but moving employees to work remotely will cause disruption. We do not want to cause any further delays to those who have been waiting. We are going to minimize this as much as possible and continue our commitment to sharing information about our progress in getting people their benefits."
The agency acquired space in a 100,000-square-foot building in May to house about 600 employees. Many of them were hired to process the thousands of unemployment claims filed since the start of the pandemic in mid-March. (Between March 15 and Nov. 28, the agency has received 618,000 claims; the number for the same point in 2019 was 100,000.)
The staff has been whittling backlogs. The number of claims in "adjudication," a process to verify or resolve conflicting information, is down from 52,000 at the end of September to around 15,800 by the end of November. Gerstenfeld said the agency hopes to meet its target of Dec. 31.
The Wilsonville center is the agency's largest workplace.
"We have been increasing the number of people teleworking each week," Gerstenfeld said. "We are constantly seeking how we can increase that pace without unduly slowing our handling of the claims of the hundreds of thousands of Oregonians relying on us.
"We are in a much better place to push the limits and increase the pace of having employees telework."
The outbreak was large enough to qualify it for a list of workplace outbreaks maintained by the Oregon Health Authority.
"This increase of people we work with contracting COVID-19 mirrors the disturbing increase we are seeing all throughout this state and the nation," Gerstenfeld said. "Needless to say, this is incredibly distressing for us to see so many of our colleagues contracting COVID-19. This situation is obviously a huge additional burden on our employees."
In July, six employees tested positive for the coronavirus at the agency's Gresham office, which closed for two weeks.
Gerstenfeld said his agency had already complied with new rules issued Nov. 6 by the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division (OR-OSHA) to prevent the spread of the virus through workplaces, except for some documentation of actions already taken. Among the rules is a 6-foot distance between employee workstations, which Gerstenfeld said can be done in the Wilsonville building.
"Despite doing that, this relentless spread of the virus has been very sobering," he said.
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