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Oregon department of employment is hiring claims processors and adding phone lines to a system that was not ready for the coronavirus collapse.

COURTESY: DEPARTMENT OF EMPLYMENT - Claiming unemployment  in Oregon is a slow process on an old website with a shortage of staff and phone lines. Officials say that will change soon as they hire more clerks and add a dashboard to the interface. The log jam in filing for unemployment benefits should soon be relieved.

According to a spokesperson for the Department of Employment, by this Friday, April 10, the number of people processing claims will have quadrupled from March 8.

The department had 106 staff people processing claims during the week of March 8th. It was in receipt of 4,900 initial claims for unemployment benefits. There are now around 350 staff processing claims and they expect to have around 400 staff by Friday, April 10. The department is still hiring.

The department has launched a software dashboard that shows data such as call wait times and number of claims paid.

The state's website has some text and graphs showing claims according to industry and county.

"We are super actively rapidly expanding our workforce to meet unprecedented need," State employment economist and spokesperson Gail Krumenauer told the Business Tribune. "We do have to actually hire and train people, so it takes more than a day to do that because we have to hire them, make sure that they're actually qualified and train them. The unemployment insurance benefits system is remarkably complicated."

The processors answer the phone, emails and paper inquiries at contact centers in the Willamette Valley and Bend, which have been adapted for social distancing.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak led to massive layoffs first in the accommodation, food services, healthcare and social assistance industries, record unemployment claims have swamped offices nationwide causing backlogs and insecurity as filers do not know if, and when, they will get paid.

More than 92,000 Oregonians filed new unemployment claims during the week of March 22, which was 21% higher than the record set the week of March 15. The previous weekly record of 20,000 was set in 2008.

The department is adding phone lines because although many follow the advice to file online, they often call back with queries.

Frustrated people have been posting about their experiences with not knowing the status of their claim and not being able to get through on the phone.

Tribune reader Ryan Whitman wrote:

"They're still denying claims based on rules from before the fed stimulus, giving people a very skewed sense of what resources should be available. And again multiple days of busy signals to get things reprocessed, appealed, or explained."

Whitman also complained that office hours end at 5 pm.

"There's a crisis and people are literally not able to feed their kids, UPS drivers and grocery clerks are taking their lives in their hands and these beurocrats (sic) think everything is business as usual on a sunny Tuesday in Salem."

Need for speed

On Tuesday, April 7, U.S. senators, including Oregon's Ron Wyden, pressed the Trump administration to speed up the unemployment benefits process.

In a letter, the Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Wyden, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and 35 Democratic colleagues wrote that the administration should: provide technological support, assist states in meeting the requirements to receive administrative funding, expand the capacity of the Department of Labor's verification system, issue outstanding guidance, provide flexibility and proactively reach out to state workforce agencies.

"In this time of national crisis, it is critical that the Department of Labor (the Department) does everything in its power to support states in administering the Unemployment Insurance (UI) program and distributing benefits. More than 6.6 million Americans filed an unemployment claim in the last week of March. As coronavirus continues to spread, we expect that this number will only get higher," the senators wrote. "The Department and state workforce agencies have a monumental task ahead in processing these claims. But, Americans who have lost their jobs don't have time to wait for a check. People need unemployment compensation now so that they can buy groceries, pay rent, and keep up on their bills. Without it, many Americans won't be able to make ends meet."

The Oregon Employment Department encourages people to file an online claim and the agency's website includes a video with step-by-step instructions for filing online claims specific to COVID-19 situations.

The department explained how a kind of social distancing in communications could work to help everyone.

"Filing an initial or weekly claim online helps those who must file their claim by phone. Calls to follow up on the status of successfully filed claims also allows fewer new initial claims, which require the most time and work, to be received by phone."

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