Wildfire aftermath adds to Employment Department workload
Oregon's widespread wildfires will add to the already heavy workloads of the state Employment Department.
Even as some employees cope with the after-effects of the fires and evacuations — and offices resume operations and are cleared of smoke — the acting director says the agency is taking on more tasks in addition to the workloads generated by the business shutdowns resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.
One is priority for unemployment claims filed by people in communities devastated by the wildfires. The other is a limited program of unemployment benefits for people in designated disaster-area counties who do not qualify for other payments.
"On top of our existing economic troubles, the added disasters from the fires are incredibly painful for so many people," David Gerstenfeld said Wednesday, Sept. 16. "We are here as a resource and we will continue to be one through this difficult time."
He spoke about the two actions during a weekly conference call with reporters.
"We are going through the claims we have to identify people we know are from the areas most heavily impacted by the fires, so that we can prioritize the work on their claims," he said.
Despite a record 566,100 claims for regular unemployment benefits filed statewide in the past six months — about eight times the 71,000 claims filed for a comparable period in 2019 — Gerstenfeld said only about 1,100 were pending, most of them filed in the past few days. Those claims are paid from a state trust fund that employers pay taxes into.
The agency is still working through adjudication of more complex claims that self-employed and gig workers have filed for under the CARES Act, which made these workers eligible for unemployment benefits for the first time. About 54,000 people are being paid federal benefits under Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, but others are still awaiting payments.
Gerstenfeld said some laid-off workers who do not qualify for any of these programs may qualify for Disaster Unemployment Assistance payments as a result of a major-disaster declaration issued Tuesday, Sept. 15, by President Donald Trump.
Under that declaration, people in eight counties — including Clackamas, Marion and Linn counties — now qualify for individual assistance, including that program, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Those three counties were swept by the Riverside and Beachie Creek fires.
"It is one more safety net for the people who are not eligible for any of the other programs," Gerstenfeld said.
"If somebody cannot work right now or is working less because of the fires, they should file for benefits. If they can get regular benefits, we are required to pay them under that program."
At least 1,300 people as of Thursday, Sept. 17, have registered for individual assistance under FEMA. In addition to unemployment benefits, which flow through the Employment Department, they can qualify for maximums of $35,500 for housing assistance and for other expenses.
"We expect that number to be much higher," Andrew Phelps, director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, told reporters on Thursday.
"We will not stop messaging this until we know that every Oregonian who is eligible has the assistance they need."
The declaration also made 20 counties — 15 of them west of the Cascades, except Clatsop, Curry and Polk — eligible for federal aid for public works repairs and temporary shelters in the aftermath of the fires. For every $3 in aid put up by FEMA, state and local governments must put up $1. This aid does not flow through the Employment Department.
Gerstenfeld said details of the Disaster Unemployment Assistance program will be available on the unemployment.oregon.gov website.
"We are already working to get these benefits ready to be paid as quickly as possible," he said. "This is a program only rarely used."
Gov. Kate Brown said at a briefing Thursday: "Although it is a manual process, we anticipate being able to make these payments by next week."
Changes allow workers to keep more earnings, receive $300 payments for 6 weeks
Oregonians can now earn up to $300 per week from work without having their unemployment benefits reduced.
The Employment Department announced Thursday, Sept. 17, that the agency's mainframe computer system will be able to process information for claims from Sept. 6 through Jan. 1.
That change came about in Senate Bill 1701, proposed at the suggestion of Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle and passed by the Legislature on Aug. 10.
Calculations are retroactive the first full week after Gov. Kate Brown signed the bill on Sept. 1.
Acting Director David Gerstenfeld said people receiving benefits do not need to take further action.
Gerstenfeld also said Wednesday he anticipates supplemental benefit payments of $300 per week for six weeks — from July 26 through Sept. 5 — will start at the end of September as previously announced. The federal money comes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency under the Lost Wages Assistance program, which follows up supplemental payments of $600 per week made under the CARES Act but stopped at the end of July.
Trump signed an executive order Aug. 7 drawing the $44 billion from a FEMA reserve for disaster aid.
For most people receiving unemployment benefits now, they will have to self-certify on the Employment Department's online claims page that their job status remains unchanged as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. This certification requirement does not apply to self-employed and gig workers, who already have filed for federal benefits under Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.
Congress has been deadlocked on future supplemental unemployment benefits beyond the $300 per week in the Lost Wages Assistance program.
The Democratic-led House passed a coronavirus aid plan May 15 to continue the $600-per-week payments through the end of the year. The Republican majority in the Senate proposed a plan, which failed to advance in a procedural vote Sept. 10, to cut supplemental payments to $300 per week, then tie them to 70% of a laid-off worker's wages.
A bipartisan group of 50 House members, including Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon, proposed their own plan. It calls for payments of $450 per week for eight weeks starting in mid-October, then $600 per week — but no more than a worker's pre-pandemic wages — through mid-January. Their plan came in at $1.5 trillion, between the Senate GOP plan of $500 billion and a reduced Democratic offer of $2 trillion.
Oregon's official unemployment rate dropped to 7.7% in August from 10.4% the previous month. It is down from a modern record 14.2% in April, but still more than double the 3.5% in March as the pandemic started.
Gerstenfeld has said he and his counterparts in other states want any follow-up payments to be easy to administer, though they have not weighed in on any specific plans.
"There is still a long way to go for the economy to recover and a large number of people needing assistance," he said.
— Peter Wong
NOTE: The original story posted Wednesday, Sept. 16, has been rewritten to split it in two. One story focuses on disaster assistance for unemployment claims stemming from Oregon's wildfires, particularly affecting Clackamas County. The other story updates two changes in unemployment benefit programs statewide that will take effect by the end of September.
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