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'We are prioritizing these changes,' state official says after Congress votes final approval.

COURTESY PHOTO - The Oregon Employment Department headquarters in Salem. Some workers whose unemployment benefits were expiring may see interruptions, but the acting director of the Oregon Employment Department says many will continue to be paid now that Congress has extended those benefits through Labor Day.

President Joe Biden signed his $1.9 trillion pandemic recovery plan, which includes $246 billion for the extensions, on Thursday, March 11. The House gave its final approval March 10 on a 220-211 vote that was along party lines. No Republicans voted for it, and just one Democrat joined all Republicans against it.

More than 130,000 Oregonians receive federal benefits under two programs created during the pandemic. When 66,000 workers covered by Work Share programs between employers and the state are included — federal benefits offset the lost wages — that total rises to 200,000.

"We know that any disruption in benefits can be a real hardship," David Gerstenfeld told reporters in a weekly conference call after final congressional action. "We are prioritizing these changes and getting them implemented as quickly and smoothly as we can and are doing all the preparation we can for this legislation."

Current federal unemployment benefits were scheduled to end March 13.

Counting all state and federal sources, Gerstenfeld said his agency has paid $8 billion in benefits during the past year to 565,000 Oregonians.

Gerstenfeld said updates on the new legislation will be posted at unemployment.oregon.gov.

Priority list

Gerstenfeld listed the priorities under HR 1913 for extensions, which now are scheduled to end Sept. 4, the end of Oregon's last full week for unemployment claims:

• Maintain supplemental payments of $300 per week, known as Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation. The original House bill had raised those payments to $400, but the Senate trimmed them back to $300. For four months last year, they were $600.

"This program helps the most people," Gerstenfeld said. "Everyone who receives at least $1 in benefits from any program will be eligible to receive this $300 weekly benefit under the new legislation."

• Continue payments to self-employed and gig workers, who had not been eligible for any unemployment benefits until Congress passed the CARES Act a year ago to create Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. Some workers had drawn the maximum amounts of 50 weeks, but the new law is retroactive and extends their eligibility.

Oregon had paid benefits under this program to some people who didn't fall under U.S. Department of Labor guidelines. But Gerstenfeld said the federal agency decided Feb. 25 to direct all states to pay benefits to workers in situations that Oregon covered, such as workers whose employers violated COVID-19 regulations on face masks and social distancing.

• Continue payments to workers who have drawn the maximum of 26 weeks of state benefits from Oregon's unemployment trust fund, which comes from payroll taxes on employers. Some workers had drawn the maximum of 24 weeks from this federal program, known as Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, but the new law extends their eligibility.

Gerstenfeld said 6,000 people were shifted into this program as their eligibility for other programs expired, so some staff time will be required to pay them for the missing two weeks. "These people will not lose out on the benefits they are eligible for," he said.

• At the bottom of the agency's list is continued work to implement another federal program, which will add $100 in weekly benefits to self-employed and gig workers who may have earned income from other sources. Oregon chose to take part in this program, known as Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation. Gerstenfeld said people who qualify for this benefit will be paid retroactively, but are already getting federal benefits under other programs.

"We will shift our attention back to building that new program once the other program extensions are up and running," he said.

Gerstenfeld said self-employed and gig people should continue to file weekly claims for benefits even if they think they have used the maximum. Other workers may have to file new claims.

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NOTE: Updates with President Biden signing the bill on Thursday, March 11; also corrects final House vote.


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