Oregon lawmakers have cleared the way for some unemployed people to obtain one-time checks of $500 if they have been waiting for weeks to obtain unemployment benefits.
The Legislative Emergency Board voted Tuesday, July 14, to approve a maximum of $35 million for an estimated 70,000 claimants, most of whom are newly eligible for benefits as a result of congressional action in March. Self-employed people, independent contractors, gig and temporary workers were ineligible for benefits before the CARES Act became law.
The checks will not count against future unemployment benefits, and unless fraud is involved, recipients will not have to repay the emergency aid.
More than 500,000 claims have been filed for regular benefits since mid-March, and most of that backlog was eliminated by June 12. But federal law requires states to ensure that newly eligible workers for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance do not qualify for regular benefits.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, proposed the $35 million from the state's $1.4 billion share of aid from the CARES Act to offer some relief for applicants who have been waiting for weeks.
"I don't want to blame the Employment Department," Courtney said. "I want to do something."
Kotek said details are still being worked out. But she said banks and other financial institutions are willing to take part, knowing that whatever they pay out will be repaid by the state — and it's not an issue of cash flow for them.
"If we set up an application process and eligibility criteria quickly, individuals could apply very soon … and they could get paid," she said.
Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, said she knows of people who have resorted to selling their cars and other possessions to stay afloat financially. But she said she is concerned about the lack of a distribution process.
"These people have lost hope. They are absolutely frantic and desperate," she said. "But if we say we have a finite amount of money and it's first-come, first-served, I do not know what that is going to look like in the bank lobbies."
Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, said he has about 200 people he or an aide call each week "so that they know that somebody from this government is listening to them and keeping them in mind as they are waiting."
He said he read with dismay a letter submitted to the E-Board on Tuesday by Katy Coba, the state's chief operating officer and director of the Department of Administrative Services.
Her letter said in part: "I need to clearly state for the record that I believe a fast-track process for jointly developing program structure with the Legislature, defining clear eligibility criteria, entering into contracts with financial institutions and ultimately getting checks into the hands of Oregon workers will take at least six weeks if not longer."
Nosse's reaction: "They are going to have to figure out how it do it faster than six weeks. I have people who cannot wait that long for some money to come."
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