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State agency says payments may be interrupted as Congress works on massive recovery plan.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Thousands of Oregonians could lose federal unemployment benefits unless the U.S. Senate takes action soon on President Biden's COVID-19 relief plan.Thousands of Oregonians have been warned their unemployment benefits may be interrupted, or even come to a halt, until Congress passes and President Joe Biden signs extensions included in the $1.9 trillion pandemic recovery plan.

COURTESY PHOTO - David Gerstenfeld, acting director of the Oregon Employment Department, offers an update on a Feb. 24 conference call with reporters.But the acting director of the Oregon Employment Department advises people to keep filing their weekly claims, even past the scheduled deadline of March 13.

"It will take time for us to update our computers with the new benefit extensions, and we may have to wait for federal guidance before we can do those updates," David Gerstenfeld told reporters on a weekly conference call Wednesday, March 3. "But we are committed to minimizing the disruption that people will see as we are so near the expiration of many of the programs."

Gerstenfeld said that though the agency staff will need to reprogram the mainframe computers that generate the benefit payments, it should be a relatively uncomplicated task to reset the expiration dates and change the weekly supplemental payments from the current $300 to $400.

"But since it is already March, it is likely that some people's benefits will become exhausted," he said. "They will not receive any additional benefits until we implement any new legislation that Congress passes and the president signs."

capital bureauExtensions of most federal unemployment benefits are part of Biden's $1.9 trillion pandemic recovery plan, which the U.S. House passed on Feb. 27 by a 219-212 vote. The U.S. Senate was scheduled to take it up this week, but at least one change — removal of the proposed increase in the federal minimum wage in stages from $7.25 to $15 — will force another vote in the House on the revised version.

The Senate is split 50-50. For the plan to pass, assuming no Republican votes, all 50 Democrats must vote for it, and Vice President Kamala Harris holds the tie-breaker.

Programs affected

Gerstenfeld said the warning applies to an estimated 133,000 people who qualify for either of two federal programs. One program, known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, helps self-employed and gig workers who first became eligible for unemployment benefits under the CARES Act last year. They qualify for regular benefits from the state unemployment trust fund only if they earn income from employers that pay taxes into the fund.

The other program, known as Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, adds 24 weeks of federal benefits to the 26 weeks of regular state benefits.

More than 60,000 other workers are covered by state Work Share programs, under which participating employers continue to pay partial salaries and the rest (20% to 40%) comes from federal benefits. The latest pandemic recovery plan would continue the federal support.

Regular benefits from the state unemployment trust fund are not affected.

Gerstenfeld said he is unaware of any new programs by Congress in Biden's recovery plan, other than the $400-per-week supplemental benefit. "It would minimize the amount of time needed to implement the changes," he said.

There is a congressional dispute over when the latest extensions should end. The House-passed plan sets Aug. 29. Biden and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, who leads the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, want to set it at the end of the federal budget year on Sept. 30, when Congress will return from a summer break.

"It certainly makes a difference to the people we provide benefits to, and that is always on top of our mind," Gerstenfeld said. "Certainly, repeated extensions make it much more difficult for us and everybody else to have certainty to prepare. We would rather see the extension go longer, and not require subsequent renewals or modifications, than to see shorter extensions."

The latest plan would be the third time Congress has weighed in on unemployment benefits since the CARES Act a year ago.

Running out, running low

Gerstenfeld said some people already are receiving notices that their benefits are on the verge of being "exhausted."

If people "exhaust" their benefits, they have reached their limits under a specific program and can receive no more money — unless they are shifted to a different program or Congress extends the program in question. Gerstenfeld said federal law bars the state from continuing benefits in anticipation of an extension.

"For right now, they should keep filing claims each week until we receive more information," he said.

He said the agency is notifying about 6,000 people in this category.

If people's benefits are "expired," Gerstenfeld said that is because the state system has a one-year limit on claims, although they may still be eligible for benefits under a specific program. People must file new claims to restart either regular state benefits or PEUC federal benefits.

Gerstenfeld said people getting PUA benefits, if they are self-employed or gig workers, do not need to file new claims, but must continue to file for benefits weekly, including the week ending March 13.

As Congress adds or modifies programs, Gerstenfeld said, "each programmatic change becomes more complex."

One change, which Oregon already allows, lets people qualify for unemployment benefits if workplace conditions violate safety measures that employers are required to follow for the coronavirus pandemic.

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