Oregon is approved for federal money but requires computer coding to make payments.

COURTESY OREGON EMPLOYMENT DEPARTMENT - Oregon has won federal approval to pay $300 per week in supplemental unemployment benefits for July 26-Aug. 15, and perhaps longer if federal money remains available. Hundreds of thousands of Oregonians will see some short-term federal unemployment benefits headed their way in several weeks.

But the acting director of the Employment Department said it's too early to pinpoint a date.

Oregon joined 36 other states approved for the supplemental benefits, which President Donald Trump ordered Aug. 8 to be drawn from $44 billion set aside for the Federal Emergency Management Agency for disaster relief.

The federal benefits would be $300 per week, half of the $600 that Congress provided under earlier legislation in the CARES Act, but that expired at the end of July.

"While we continue to hope for more robust, longer-term support for those in need, we are excited to be able to provide additional financial relief at this time," Acting Director David Gerstenfeld said Friday, Aug. 28, after FEMA announced its approval.

He said the $300 payments would be retroactive to the week ending Aug. 1 — the earlier payments ended the week of July 25 — but probably will last only about three weeks through Aug. 15.

"I really hesitate to give any estimate because it's so early. We've been coding and doing all of that work. It won't be tomorrow; I can say that safely," he told reporters on a conference call on Wednesday, Aug. 26.

"We hope we are looking at a few weeks, but we're really not certain until we get a little further into the work. As we get a more solid estimate, we will certainly share that. We don't want people to have a false expectation of exactly when they will receive it."

Gerstenfeld said the short-term program, known as Lost Wages Assistance, requires new coding work for the agency's mainframe computer system that dates back almost three decades.

He said some unemployment-benefit recipients will have to take additional action to get these payments, but gig and self-employed workers who applied for a new federal program.

Oregon's unemployment rate in July was 10.4%, down from a modern record 14.2% in April at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in widespread business shutdowns. The agency received more than 500,000 claims for regular unemployment benefits and 100,000 for self-employed and gig workers. The July rate still is on par with Oregon's highest rate during the 2007-10 Great Recession.

The agency had already announced it would seek the additional money from FEMA, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. Most of the remaining 13 states are expected to follow suit, except for South Dakota, which has declined to participate.

When Trump announced the program via an executive order, he said states would be required to contribute $100 for each $300 from FEMA.

But under guidance issued by the federal government, states cannot tap unemployment trust funds — which come from taxes on employers — to provide the match. States can use their shares of aid from the CARES Act, which provided the original supplemental benefit of $600 per week, but Oregon has already committed virtually all of its $1.4 billion in aid for other pandemic-related expenses.

States also can count payments of existing benefits as long as they are $100 per week.

Only Kentucky, Montana and West Virginia plan to contribute money from other sources.

"Almost every state that has applied or is considering applying is doing" what Oregon is doing in counting only existing payments, Gerstenfeld said.

"To add the $100 would require the Legislature to identify some other revenue source and authorizes us to spend that money to provide the additional benefits."

States administer unemployment benefits, which vary widely, under federal Department of Labor guidelines.

Gerstenfeld said that given likely demands for relief stemming from wildfires in the West and hurricanes in the South, FEMA is unlikely to make available any money beyond the $44 billion Trump set aside for the short-term program. FEMA has about $25 billion remaining for disaster relief.

Gerstenfeld said longer-term relief will have to await action by Congress, which took its summer recess without coming to an agreement on a future extension of unemployment benefits.

The Democratic-led House passed an overall $3 trillion relief plan May 15 that simply extended the $600-per-week supplemental benefits through Dec. 31. But the Republican majority in the Senate balked at the price tag and came up with a more complex $1 trillion plan, which never reached a vote, tying future benefits to 70% of lost wages. Trump issued his order after talks collapsed between his negotiators and congressional Democrats.

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

NOTE: Updates with federal approval, additional comment by acting director.

You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.

Have a thought or opinion on the news of the day? Get on your soapbox and share your opinions with the world. Send us a Letter to the Editor!