The Employment Department is gearing up for an increase in benefit claims as a result of pandemic-prompted lockdown orders that will close or curtail some Oregon businesses.
Fifteen of Oregon's 36 counties — covering seven of the state's 10 largest cities — have been returned to the "extreme risk" category for the COVID-19 virus. Indoor dining is barred, and other activities are curtailed, for one to three weeks starting Friday, April 30.
"We know that this change in risk levels may mean layoffs across counties and different business sectors," acting director David Gerstenfeld told reporters in a weekly conference call on Wednesday, April 28.
"It may result in more people seeking benefits as their livelihoods are impacted. We are watching the situation very closely and we are prepared to handle any increase in benefit claims or customer questions about their benefits."
Gerstenfeld said that after the onset of the pandemic, when filings of unemployment claims reached record highs in just weeks — up to half a million by late spring 2020 — the department should be ready to cope with a new influx of claims.
During the 2020 spike, Oregon's unemployment rate shot up from a record low 3.5% in March to an adjusted record high of 13.2% in April. It has fallen; the March 2021 rate was 6%, which it has hovered around for a few months.
New claims in March jumped by 70% from their February levels, mainly because there is a one-year limit on claims for regular benefits from the state unemployment trust fund and unemployed workers were compelled to file again. Gerstenfeld said there was a backlog of claims for awhile, but measured in weeks and not months, and processing time has been reduced to about a week.
"We are still seeing elevated levels (of claims) in relation to a healthy economy," he said. "But they certainly are not as high as they were at the onset of the pandemic.
"We didn't see it spike that high, partly because the economy is doing better now than it was at the onset of the pandemic, partly because people are needing to file new claims as their old ones expire."
Gerstenfeld said communications will be made easier by a new "contact" feature, installed on a new platform, on the website unemployment.oregon.gov. The agency also has hired 160 more people to process claims, a step that has freed more experienced workers to deal with complex claims, and has augmented email communications.
He said call waits on telephone lines remain a problem.
Although there is no time limit on claims by self-employed and gig workers for federal benefits under a program known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance — which came into existence last year, and is scheduled to run through Sept. 4 — the Employment Department is still seeking proof of income from many of 20,000 claimants. When it extended the program, Congress required states to obtain more information to avert fraudulent claims.
The department did have to shut down its system over a weekend earlier this month in an attempt to deter fraud under the program, although Gerstenfeld said the issue has been resolved.
Oregon has had unemployment benefits since a national system was instituted in 1935 and the state created an Unemployment Compensation Commission. A department was created in 1959, merged into the newly formed Department of Human Resources in 1971, and separated again in 1993.
Gerstenfeld said his agency also helps employers find workers and workers find new jobs and new careers, not just pay out unemployment benefits. He said as Oregon's economy improves, his staff will turn its attention toward its other functions.
"We have been working diligently behind the scenes to prepare for life after the pandemic to help people find jobs and careers and to rebuild Oregon's economy," he said. "There is cause to feel hopeful. As more Oregonians get vaccinated, the state will open back up and jobs will come back. We are already seeing this."
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