For 70,000 unemployed Oregonians, it's a waiting game
More than 70,000 Oregonians will have to pin their hopes on Congress, not the forthcoming special session of the Oregon Legislature, for their unemployment benefits to continue past a looming deadline of Dec. 26.
Acting Director David Gerstenfeld says the Oregon Employment Department foresees a gap in their payments, even if Congress does extend federal benefits to self-employed and gig workers who became newly eligible under the CARES Act earlier this year. Also expiring is a program that extends the regular state benefits of 26 weeks by another 13 weeks.
"We know that any delay will be difficult for the many Oregonians relying on benefits," he told reporters Wednesday, Dec. 16, on a weekly conference call.
"We're really depending on Congress, which provided the CARES Act, to get something passed before those programs expire. We know many people depend on those benefits, and it is creating anxiety for them to see the end of those benefits — and to see it coming for several months, with Congress not yet extending those benefits."
After political disputes going back months, Congress appears poised to attach some follow-up aid to unemployed workers to an extension of federal spending authority that avoids a partial government shutdown. That aid could include extra $300-per-week payments on top of unemployment benefits, half of the $600-per-week payments under the CARES Act from March 27 through July 25.
Details were still not final, but if approved, the benefit extensions would run through spring.
Gerstenfeld has said previously that even if Congress acts now, Oregon and other states would need time to reprogram their computer mainframe systems to put those changes into effect.
"Extending the current programs would be the quickest way for us to get money out the door to those in need and to ensure minimal gaps in providing benefits to people," he said.
"How quickly we can implement new programs and get benefits to those who are eligible depends on how simple the new programs are, how quickly we receive guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor and what that guidance requires us to do.
"If legislation is passed soon, as we certainly hope it will be, we will be working through the holidays to start implementing these programs."
According to an analysis Gerstenfeld provided, the unemployed workers affected by the likely interruption in Pandemic Unemployment Assistance are more women than men (53% to 47%), greater shares of them being 65 and older or between ages 35 and 44 and distributed across the state. But he also said there would be a greater effect in Coos, Curry, Lincoln and Jackson counties.
No state action
Neither Gov. Kate Brown nor legislative leaders have talked about tapping state funds as a stopgap measure to continue those benefits uninterrupted until Congress acts.
Gerstenfeld said the state unemployment trust fund, which comes from payroll taxes on employers, cannot be used to pay benefits to self-employed and gig workers now getting federal aid.
Gerstenfeld said lawmakers would have to tap some other source to provide money for stopgap benefits.
"There are a lot of complications, including money to pay the benefits and finding ways to administer it that would not put at risk the other programs we are administering or run afoul of federal requirements," he said.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee vowed earlier this month to tap his state's funds, apparently from the state's share of aid from the CARES Act, to continue benefit payments in that state. But under its terms, CARES Act funds must be spent by Dec. 31, although Congress could extend that deadline in pending legislation.
Oregon lawmakers already have committed the state's $1.4 billion share of CARES Act aid.
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said on Monday, Dec. 14, that the best lawmakers could come up with is a program similar to the $35 million in CARES Act money distributed in $500 increments to needy households in August. The program, largely done through participating credit unions and banks, ran out of money after two days.
The Emergency Board, which consists of 20 members who make budget decisions between sessions of the full Legislature, is scheduled to get another infusion of $600 million in the state emergency fund for expenses related to the coronavirus pandemic and the Labor Day wildfires. If the Legislature approves that allocation, the board would meet between the special session and the start of the 2021 regular session on Jan. 11.
Courtney said his intent is for the board to retain $200 million of that total to be carried over into the regular session.
Gerstenfeld also said the agency is advocating passage during the special session of a technical bill that would allow it to tap its fraud control fund, instead of the state trust fund, to cover any overpayments of unemployment benefits under the Lost Wages Assistance program. Because the $44 billion nationally ($363 million in Oregon) came from disaster assistance funds, the Federal Emergency Management Agency requires states to refund any overpayments of benefits.
However, this bill did not make the agenda of the special session committee, which listed just four bills for consideration at the Dec. 21 session.
NOTE: Updates with omission of legislation from the agenda of the Legislature's special session committee, which posted its four bills for consideration on Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 16. Hearings are scheduled Thursday, Dec. 17, and Saturday, Dec. 19, if necessary.
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