Most Oregonians receiving federal unemployment benefits should continue to get them uninterrupted despite the late signing of legislation that renews them through March 13.
Acting Director David Gerstenfeld said the Oregon Employment Department foresees no interruption in payments. He also said the extra $300 per week Congress added to all unemployment benefits might start being paid out next week as well.
"It kept 72,000 people from losing a critical safety net and offered additional assistance to Oregonians in need," Gerstenfeld said Wednesday, Dec. 30, during a weekly conference call with reporters. "We're glad that the 11-week extension of much-needed benefits has officially been enacted."
President Donald Trump signed the $900 billion coronavirus aid bill (HR 133) on Dec. 27 after he threatened to hold it up over unrelated disputes. The bill also contains $1.4 trillion to keep the federal government running through the end of the budget year on Sept. 30.
Affected Oregonians include about 70,000 self-employed and gig workers, who qualified for federal benefits for the first time under the CARES Act about nine months ago, under a program known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.
Others qualified for 13 weeks of federal benefits on top of the regular 26 weeks of payments from Oregon's state trust fund. Regular benefits differ from state to state.
Another 67,000 workers are enrolled in Work Share programs under which the federal government, not the state trust fund, is picking up the difference between reduced hours by 1,700 employers and a standard 40-hour week. Otherwise, the participating employers would have to pay higher payroll tax rates in the future to replenish the state trust fund.
Gerstenfeld said that for now, people should continue to file claims weekly, but should not call the agency directly about the program extensions, which involve some changes to deter fraud.
The extra $300 per week in benefits for all unemployed workers from Dec. 27 through March 13 is half the $600 paid under the CARES Act, which Trump signed last spring. The extra $600 benefit ended July 25. A separate program funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency continued an extra $300-per-week benefit from July 26 through Sept. 5.
All federal unemployment benefits under the CARES Act ended on Dec. 26.
The $300 per week is slightly more than the federal minimum wage, which is $7.25 per hour, set back in 2009. Oregon is among 29 states with higher minimums.
The U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees how states administer unemployment benefits, says payments can continue starting the week ending Jan. 2.
"Millions of jobless workers will be able to breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that they will not lose a week's worth of income," Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement. "Now, Donald Trump's needless delay in signing the relief bill still means unnecessary administrative headaches and late payments, but workers will not lose income."
The Finance Committee has authority over unemployment benefits, which generally are drawn from state trust funds that come from payroll taxes on employers. All benefits, no matter the source, are taxable by state and federal governments.
Gerstenfeld said there are some exceptions that will force some people to wait.
An estimated 1,500 people were close to the end of receiving newly-created federal benefits for self-employed and gig workers. The maximum was 46 weeks. They will qualify for the 11-week extension, but Gerstenfeld said there may be delays.
"We aren't far enough in yet to know how long that may take," he said.
Among the others who will wait are those who qualify for regular state unemployment benefits, but also can show they had at least $5,000 in self-employment income during the past tax year. Congress included this new program, known as Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation, in the latest bill that Trump signed.
"It may not be until March" before benefits are paid under this program, Gerstenfeld said.
State participation is voluntary, but Gerstenfeld said Oregon plans to do so. The extra benefit is $100 per week through March 13.
Gerstenfeld said the U.S. Department of Labor has interpreted the new law as requiring verification of self-employment income. But he said federal officials have not specified what kind of documentation will be necessary, and that agency officials will then have to reprogram computers and train staff to handle it.
"This program will be one of the more challenging programs for us to implement," he said. "There are significant unknowns about the federal parameters we will have to follow."
Under the CARES Act, states had to verify first that people qualified for regular benefits under state trust funds before they could qualify for federal benefits for self-employed and gig workers. Gerstenfeld said this process caused difficulties for state agencies and delays for people awaiting benefits.
"This certainly has been a topic for discussion. I do not know that this was something formally recommended in any way," he said. "Looking at the more recent versions of legislation we had been preparing for, it was a bit of a surprise to most states that this was in the bill that passed."
'We are prepared'
Gerstenfeld said the agency has whittled its backlogs of claims under "adjudication" requiring further review, and waiting-week payments Gov. Kate Brown ordered months ago.
The 52,000 claims under adjudication as of Sept. 30 were down to 2,300, and about 170,000 waiting-week claims that could have required manual processing were down to around 9,000. (Payments have topped 418,000.) Gerstenfeld said both backlogs should be eliminated soon, and the agency staff will turn to an unspecified number of claims pending adjudication since Oct. 1.
"The Employment Department is better prepared today than it was at the start of the pandemic, when the CARES Act created several brand-new programs that we had to program (on computers) and train on," Gerstenfeld said.
"Today we are prepared to quickly implement program changes into our systems, to share helpful and easy-to-understand information with Oregonians … and we are better prepared to respond to your questions or concerns."
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