At least 27,000 Oregonians are receiving their first extensions of federal unemployment benefits from the Oregon Employment Department under President Joe Biden's pandemic recovery plan.
Acting Director David Gerstenfeld says these unemployed workers had exhausted their claims on March 13, but because of the plan — which Biden signed on March 11 — they were able to get renewed benefits for the week starting March 14. The first payments went out this week.
"Unfortunately some people used up their benefits weeks ago," Gerstenfeld told reporters on a weekly conference call on Wednesday, March 24. "So they will not be able to get benefits for weeks prior to March 14."
The extensions run until Sept. 4, the end of the claim week that Oregon and most other states use.
For people filing new claims for federal benefits — either because they are self-employed or gig workers under Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or they qualify for up to 25 more weeks under Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation after their 26 weeks of state benefits ended — Gerstenfeld said it may take more time for the agency staff to verify they are eligible. He said, because they are federal programs, federal law requires the additional work.
A previous law, under which Congress extended benefits to self-employed and gig workers from Dec. 26 through March 13, requires states to obtain proof of employment or self-employment from current and prospective recipients. Gerstenfeld said his agency can stop benefits, and even require repayments, if workers do not provide such proof by specified deadlines.
"We know that this requirement and the related deadlines have been confusing," he said.
During the past year, after Congress approved benefits for the first time to self-employed and gig workers who were not covered by the system before, Oregon has paid out a total of $691 million to more than 100,000 people.
Gerstenfeld also said the agency plans by the end of April to activate another federal program, known as Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation, that will pay $100 per week to people receiving regular state benefits but also earning at least $5,000 in income from self-employment. This program is in effect from Dec. 26 through Sept. 4.
More proof required
Although all unemployment benefit programs, state and federal, are targets for fraud, national news accounts indicate that the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program has been a bigger target than others. For regular unemployment benefits drawn from state trust funds, claims can be checked readily against payroll records of employers, who pay taxes into the funds. But records for self-employed and gig workers can be spotty.
Gerstenfeld said such fraud is often committed by people using personal data stolen as a result of large-scale data breaches.
"For some people, someone using their stolen identity in an attempt to get unemployment benefits is how they learn their identity was first stolen," he said.
Although he says Oregon has not lost money through fraud on the same scale as in California and Washington, Gerstenfeld has said it isn't for lack of attempts to defraud the agency. Washington lost $600 million last May, although it has recovered $369 million; California has lost more than $1 billion.
"We know we are not sharing the specific information that people would like to see," he said. "But we take very seriously our obligation to protect public dollars and safeguard Oregon's trust fund. The more information we share about fraud, the more risk that poses for the trust fund."
He referred to a letter released Wednesday by the National Governors Association and the National Association of State Workforce Agencies, which have urged action by Martin Walsh, the former Boston mayor who just took over as the new U.S. secretary of labor. The Department of Labor oversees state unemployment benefit systems.
The letter says in part:
"We urge you to assemble a DOL Organized Unemployment Insurance Fraud Prevention Task Force with broad expertise in uncovering sophisticated fraud attacks to (1) coordinate and support unemployment insurance fraud detection, (2) identify fraud prevention tools and make them available to states at no cost or a substantially reduced cost, and (3) take the lead on prosecution at the federal level, as opposed to state agencies working through various state and local authorities on their own. Additional targeted funding should be made available for state detection and federal prosecution of unemployment fraud schemes."
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