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Agency chief says more will be paid by March 27, urges others to keep filing claims.

COURTESY PHOTO: OREGON EMPLOYMENT DEPARTMENT - The Oregon Employment Department will continue supplemental federal unemployment benefits of $300 per week uninterrupted, but the acting director says some self-employed and gig workers, and some who rely on federal benefits once their state payments expired, may wait while federal extensions are programmed into the state system.All unemployed Oregonians will continue to get uninterrupted supplemental benefits of $300 per week under an extension of federal programs contained in President Joe Biden's pandemic recovery plan, which is now law.

But for thousands of self-employed and gig workers who have exhausted their federal benefits, and workers who have exhausted federal benefits that kick in once their 26 weeks of state payments stopped, they may have to wait as the Oregon Employment Department programs the extensions into the system.

"It will take us additional time to add the newly created benefits to their claim. We are doing everything we can to minimize that additional time," acting director David Gerstenfeld told reporters in a weekly conference call.

"It is important that if someone receives a letter informing them their claim is exhausted — meaning they have a zero balance — they should keep filing their weekly claims every week."

Gerstenfeld said people will be paid benefits retroactively, including the supplemental benefits of $300 per week under what is known as Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation.

Under the American Rescue Plan, federal unemployment benefits were extended 25 weeks from March 13 through Labor Day, although Oregon and most states end the closest claim week on Saturday, Sept. 4.

"Our goal is to have them be paid out by the end of next week," Gerstenfeld said, for self-employed and gig workers who still qualify for federal benefits, and for workers who still qualify for federal benefits that kick in after they received 26 weeks of payments from the state trust fund. These programs are known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation.

For workers in both programs who have exhausted their federal benefits — but are newly eligible for 25 more weeks because of the extensions — Gerstenfeld they will be affected most by the changeover.

"We remain focused on minimizing any disruption some people may see before we are fully able to implement all of the extensions and new aspects of those programs," he said.

Workloads persist

Gerstenfeld said the number of claims in "adjudication," which require more review by the agency staff, remains around the 6,000 mark. It had been far higher but the backlog has been whittled down.

"We are able to get through those claims much more rapidly than we were before," he said, and most are now resolved within four to six weeks because they are flagged earlier. "But we will always have some claims that require adjudication."

Some claims involve a worker with multiple employers, or one who earns money from gigs but also an employer who pays into the state unemployment trust fund.

"There are still many people needing assistance, and our workload remains extremely high," Gerstenfeld said.

During the coronavirus pandemic, which now is one year old, the agency has paid out a total of $8.1 billion in state and federal benefits to 569,000 people. Gerstenfeld said that is equivalent to 12 million weeks of benefit payments. For 103,000 self-employed and gig workers, who did not qualify for any unemployment benefits prior to the CARES Act passed last year, they got a total of $676 million.

In the most recent week, the agency paid $143 million to 172,000 people, which Gerstenfeld said was high by historical standards.

"As economic conditions continue to improve, we are seeing fewer new claims being filed," he said. "A large percentage of people getting benefits are not new claims, but those who are still unemployed after using up their benefits under their initial claims and are getting benefits under one of the extension programs."

Oregon gained 13,900 non-farm jobs in February, according to the agency, and the statewide unemployment rate dipped from 6.2% in January to 6.1%. About 11,000 of those jobs came in the leisure and hospitality sector, which saw the greatest reduction during the pandemic as restaurants, bars and hotels curtailed their operations or closed. Many have reopened as the state has eased county-by-county restrictions on capacity.

Oregon's unemployment rate shot up from a record low 3.5% in March 2020 to an adjusted record high 13.2% in April 2020, but has declined since then.

Gerstenfeld said the rate of decline has leveled off in recent months. At February's growth level, he said, "it would take another 11 months to return to the prerecession employment levels."

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