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Oregon secretary of state said the system failed during COVID-19 when people needed it the most.

COURTESY: STATE OF OREGON - The critical audit was released Wednesday, July 27.Issues with Oregon's unemployment system were exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, and now state auditors are making recommendations to prevent similar problems in the future.

On Wednesday, July 27, Secretary of State Shemia Fagan released an audit that found several factors, along with the influx of claims in March 2020, slowed the Oregon Employment Department's ability to pay out benefits.

"The goal of a safety net is for it to be there when you need it," Fagan said. "This audit helps explain why Oregon's unemployment insurance program failed when it was needed most and identifies actionable steps OED can take to make sure help is always available when Oregonians need it most."

With claims for unemployment reportedly being 10 times higher at the end of March than two weeks prior, OED's online and phone systems were overwhelmed. This audit, and audits completed prior to the pandemic, found the unemployment system was outdated, inefficient and difficult to update.

New federal programs created by Congress also took time for the state to put in place and hire the necessary staff.

In looking back at 2020, the audit found several key factors that led to a breakdown in the Oregon Employment Department's (systems.

Prior audits in 2012, 2015 and 2020 identified outdated, inefficient, difficult-to-update systems that hindered the agency's ability to pay out benefits quickly, especially during economic downturns.

OED's phone-based system was overwhelmed by an unprecedented influx in calls. The agency did not have enough physical phone lines or staff to be able to answer all the additional calls they were getting.

The agency had to staff up quickly and implement multiple new federal programs Congress created in the wake of business closures caused by COVID-19.

In an effort to prevent similar delays during unemployment surges, the audit recommends OED monitor claims to ensure benefits are returned in a timely manner, modernize its IT system to reduce errors and improve ways of uploading documents. State auditors also recommend creating a complaints department to help claimants use the unemployment application system.

The audit can be found here.

KOIN 6 News is a news partner of the Portland Tribune.

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