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Six ill workers force 2-week closure of Gresham office and a quicker move toward teleworking.

COVID-19 has sidelined 13 employees of the Oregon Employment Department, including six whose absences have forced a two-week closure of the agency's Gresham office at 1942 S.E. Stark St.

Other Gresham office employees, who are required to stay at home, will be among the employees who will telework from home as part of a pilot project, according to the agency's acting director.

David Gerstenfeld says the 15 remaining Gresham employees will join the ranks of agency staffers focused on processing a backlog of 55,000 claims filed by workers newly eligible for unemployment benefits, such as self-employed people, independent contractors, gig and temporary workers. Congress made them eligible for the first time through the CARES Act, which became law March 27.

Oregon has received slightly more than 100,000 claims from those workers for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, in addition to 513,300 claims for regular unemployment benefits from March 15 through July 11, according to the agency's dashboard on its website. The latter total is more than 10 times the 49,800 claims received for the same period in 2019, but all but 1,140 of them have been processed.

"This pilot will allow us to work out most of the kinks with hopes of expanding the telework option more broadly," Gerstenfeld told reporters during a conference call last week (July 15). "We believe we have mitigated the majority of the barriers of teleworking for most positions."

The agency already had a pilot project involving a small number of adjudicators, whose job it is to analyze claims and determine whether the applicants are eligible for benefits. The agency had moved slowly because Gerstenfeld said claims contain personal information that requires high security.

Earlier in the week, Local 503 of Service Employees International Union, which represents the largest group of state workers, announced the agreement for the pilot project.

Steve Demarest, Local 503 president and an Employment Department employee, said: "We have been pushing for this because it keeps workers safe and expands the department's capacity to serve Oregonians in need at this critical moment. "We wish they had moved faster."

The six Gresham-based employees were the largest contingent among the 13 who tested positive for the coronavirus at a total of seven workplaces. Gerstenfeld said two employees reported the illness in April, the rest in recent weeks.

"We made the difficult decision to close that office for 14 days to keep employees from that office during the incubation period for the virus," he said.

Gresham is one of three Portland metro area offices with no staff currently onsite, according to the agency website. The others are Beaverton and Southeast Portland. There are a few others across the state.

Gerstenfeld said face coverings had not been required of employees until recently. Gov. Kate Brown, in response to a growing upswing in COVID-19 cases, has required coverings since July 1 in indoor public spaces for both employees and visitors.

"We are about to require face coverings in all of our offices and will provide face coverings for our employees," Gerstenfeld said.

"Face coverings are not currently mandated in settings where the public is not being served in person. But we are doing this as an additional preventative measure. We are encouraging employees to wear face coverings if they can, and we have been encouraging employees whose jobs can be done remotely to telework. In general, employees who have been able to work from home have been doing so."

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