OREGON — A newly reported case of coronavirus at a state call center in Beaverton has stepped up concerns at the agency that's been processing a record-setting 270,000 unemployment claims received from laid-off Oregonians.
Workers at the Oregon Employment Department have for weeks been accusing the agency of violating Gov. Kate Brown's March 23 stay-at-home order at the call center and another one in Bend, putting the workers who are processing needed benefits at risk.
Now that the department has seen its first case of the virus, it seemingly confirms workers' fears that it was among them. On April 8, OED management alerted SEIU members who work at the Beaverton center that one of their coworkers had tested positive for the virus, telling them in an email "you may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus," the Portland Tribune has learned.
A top Oregon union leader told the Tribune that Gov. Kate Brown or another agency needs to step in to protect the call center employees who are processing claims while working in close quarters.
When it comes to processing Oregonians' claims, those employees "are it," said Steve Demarest, president of Local 503 of the Service Employees International Union, adding that an outbreak at the centers "would just cripple their efforts. … We need to get those benefits out there into people's pockets so they can take care of themselves (and to) keep money in the economy."
Gail Krumenauer, a department spokesperson, in an email defended the agency's efforts to promote safety even as it reassigns employees and hires new ones to deal with an unprecedented number of claims.
She said the agency has adopted a number of measures, including a change from one shift to two at call centers so that employees can sit further from each other. She said the need to protect applicants' information, such as Social Security numbers, keeps the agency from doing more to let employees work from home.
"We have to protect the private information of the people who need unemployment benefits from us," she said. "Using unsecured phone lines or allowing inadvertent access to those pieces of private information poses a huge risk to them."
Virus spreading, employees fear
OED has received nearly 270,000 unemployment claims in the previous three weeks, the department announced last week.
Of those, about half have been processed, meaning a backlog continues. The process has involved errors and delays, sparking complaints, The Oregonian reported recently.
Krumenauer said the department has implemented social distancing changes and has been working hard to handle the historic workload, hiring staff and reassigning existing employees to double the number of employees taking claims.
Central to the work are the department's call centers. They are termed "contact centers," and employees there do much more than just take calls — processing claims, adjudicating final approvals, and more
Many employees at the department thought the coronavirus was spreading at the centers weeks before the first case was confirmed, according to interviews.
Adam Lane was one of several employees who went public expressing their concerns in a March 28 article in the Salem Statesman Journal newspaper. He works as an adjudicator in the Beaverton center, deciding whether applications meet state requirements for approval.
He told the Tribune that "People have been getting sick, exhibiting COVID-19-like symptoms (but) almost nobody can get tested." He said the symptoms have been "spreading out in a geometric, predictable sort of pattern" among the cubicles there.
Records show that, for weeks, employees at the department have been filing complaints expressing fear and accusing management of violating Brown's March 23 stay-home order, which required state agencies to facilitate employees working from home "to the maximum extent possible."
Five complaints were filed between March 26 and April 7, the most recent saying "employees are working in close proximity of one another and are not adhering to the 6-foot social distancing rule," according to an OSHA spreadsheet disclosed April 9.
Lane said he is one of those who complained. He was denied permission to work from home and instead is taking leave to avoid an unsafe workplace — meaning he is not allowed to work on the agency's huge backlog of unapproved claims.
In the context of the coronavirus, management's failure to allow more remote work is "putting their staff at risk," Lane said.
It's also a productivity issue. Several employees are out on leave, some with symptoms and some who are just scared because they take care of elderly relatives.
New or inexperienced employees typically can only handle uncomplicated claims — known as "clean" cases— whereas many of those on leave are older and more experienced workers, capable of processing challenging claims, employees say.
Confidentiality claim questioned
In a March 26 letter to the department, Demarest accused management there of arbitrary intransigence" in refusing to allow more telework.
The union president, who worked for years at the agency handling sensitive tax information, said he doesn't buy management's claim that confidentiality concerns bar it from doing more to let employees work from home.
Years ago the agency held a disaster preparedness exercise in which people took laptops to work from home, Demarest said, and he'd been told that the agency's preparedness plans accounted for that.
Not only that, but "There have been and are people who work at home with the same type of information," he said. "So their arguments that it's not doable (due to) confidentiality concerns just to me don't hold up."
Lane works at the department as an adjudicator, working with the same information to decide whether to approve claims.
He said other agencies and companies around the country allow remote work with confidentiality protections, and have been doing so for years. He suspects that the problem is about what the agency is willing to spend on equipment to make telework possible.
But Lane, a lawyer, noted the governor's order doesn't leave agencies much choice but to make remote work happen. The language is "very strong," he said.
Safety measure sparks productivity concern
Instead of allowing more remote work, the department has split workers up into two shifts at the call centers.
The morning shift starts at 5:30am, and second shift runs from 2pm to 10:30pm.
The early morning and late evening hours are not conducive to making phone calls, employee say.
And more importantly, the department's mainframe is unavailable from 7pm until the second shift ends — meaning nearly half that shift cannot be spent doing the core work of processing claims.
Demarest said he's been told employees are far less productive during that time frame: "The workers have told me that there is some catchup stuff that they can do but they were almost through all that, and there really wasn't that much for them to do after the mainframe shut down ... if the system's down, there's not much you can do as far as making progress against all these claims."
Krumenauer, however, disagreed: "There is a large volume of processing claims that occurs outside of the mainframe. For example, in just one evening this week, we responded to 6,000 e-mails in our unemployment benefits e-mail boxes. We are also pursuing call-back options for people in the evening that have had difficulty reaching us during the day."
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