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Agency still faces work, but its director says 'Oregonians are not losing their lifeline.'

Most of the 72,000 Oregonians receiving federally supported unemployment benefits continue to get uninterrupted payments despite belated approval by Congress and President Donald Trump of an 11-week extension.

The acting director of the Oregon Employment Department says 59,000 were paid under programs that aid self-employed and gig workers for the first time or extend benefits for 13 weeks in addition to Oregon's state benefits of 26 weeks.

David Gerstenfeld also said that 122,000 receiving state or federal unemployment benefits received the first $300-per-week supplements that will end on March 13.

All of them were part of a $900 billion coronavirus aid plan that Congress cleared on Dec. 22 and Trump signed Dec. 27, one day after the benefits expired under the previous CARES Act. The first payments under the new plan were made during the week ended Jan. 2.

Through the efforts of agency employees during the holidays, Gerstenfeld said Wednesday, Jan. 6, "we have been able to implement some changes and start paying some benefits without any gap or disruption to the people who are relying on them."

"We are grateful the benefits were passed and that Oregonians are not losing their lifeline as abruptly as we feared they would," he added on a weekly conference call with reporters. "But I want to be transparent about the immense amount of work that the Employment Department is facing."

For thousands of other self-employed and gig workers drawing near the end of their benefits under the program known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, he said, the agency hopes to start paying their benefits later in January.

Gerstenfeld said the new law does require Oregon and other states to make changes that may affect future benefits. Among them are verification of identity — although he said Oregon already takes some steps — and additional specific documentation of income from self-employment. Some changes are more technical.

"It is vital that we do not move forward preemptively with some changes until we receive federal guidance" from the U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees state unemployment benefit programs.

Gerstenfeld also said Oregon is among the states that plan to opt into a new federal program that allows an extra $100-per-week payment to workers who draw regular unemployment benefits and also earn at least $5,000 annually in self-employment income.

Payments under this program are unlikely to be made until March.

Gerstenfeld said people will be paid retroactively if they are found eligible for the program, so they should continue to file benefit claims each week.

The agency drew sharp criticism from state lawmakers and the public for huge claims backlogs going back to the start of the pandemic last March.

Gerstenfeld said agency staff have reduced 52,000 claims under "adjudication," requiring further detailed review, to around 150 from the starting point of Sept. 30. Waiting-week benefits have been paid out to about 425,000 people; the current backlog is about 9,000.

Although he has not been specific, President-elect Joe Biden described the $900 billion aid plan as a starting point for additional spending he will ask from Congress once he becomes president on Jan. 20. Gerstenfeld said his agency is keeping in touch with its national association, the Department of Labor and Oregon's congressional delegation to anticipate further changes past the current 11-week extension that ends March 13. If there are further changes, he said, he hopes Congress will not wait until the last minute to pass them.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, with the shift from a Republican to a Democratic majority, is in line to lead the Finance Committee, which oversees tax legislation. Unemployment benefits are drawn from payroll taxes on employers, though Wyden was instrumental in creating the new programs for self-employed and gig workers.

"It is one of the things that allowed us to get some of these benefits rolled out so quickly this time," Gerstenfeld said. "The people who designed the program before were thinking ahead about what kinds of changes there might be so that they could be done more quickly."

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