Senate committee plans hearings on Employment Department
An Oregon Senate committee will hear from the Employment Department and the public about how the agency has dealt with the avalanche of unemployment claims filed during the coronavirus pandemic.
The virtual hearings start at 8 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 1, and will continue through Thursday, Sept. 3, when the public will get a chance to comment.
For details, see the link to the web page of the Senate Labor and Business Committee below.
Written testimony is encouraged.
For oral testimony by telephone at Thursday's hearing, preregistration is required with the committee staff by 5 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 2, and is likely to be limited to a couple minutes per person. Oral testimony also will be taken at a station on the State Street side of the Capitol in Salem on Thursday morning; no preregistration is required, but a time limit will apply, and there is no guarantee of a slot.
From the start of the pandemic on March 15 through Aug. 22, the Employment Department has tallied more than 550,000 claims for regular unemployment benefits, compared with about 64,000 for the same period in 2019.
The agency has also signed up about 1,500 employers for Work Share, a program that covers 64,000 workers whose hours have been reduced 20% to 40% as a result of the pandemic. Under Work Share, unemployment benefits — paid by the federal government through December — offset the wages that workers have lost from reduced work hours.
The agency also is paying 46,000 claims filed by self-employed workers, independent contractors, gig and other temporary workers under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program that Congress authorized in the CARES Act at the end of March. It was the first time these workers qualified for unemployment benefits.
The Employment Department estimates that it has paid out $4 billion in benefits through Aug. 22.
But the agency has had to boost its claims-processing staff from 100 to more than 1,000 to handle all the claims. The staff has had to develop a Google application for the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program to enable those claims to be linked with the three-decade-old mainframe computer system that generates benefit payments.
The resulting claims backlog, new demands and long delays have made the agency a target for critics. After hearings by the House Business and Labor Committee in May, Gov. Kate Brown forced the resignation of director Kay Erickson and named David Gerstenfeld — who once led the unemployment claims division — as the agency's acting director.
The first two days of hearings by the Senate committee will look at the claims process and the agency's performance. They will focus on the agency itself.
"We are looking for opportunities that can help improve things," Gerstenfeld told reporters in a conference call last week.
But Gerstenfeld said he does not anticipate specific legislation to emerge immediately from the hearings. He said it's more likely that bills will be introduced at the next regular legislative session, which starts Jan. 11.
"I cannot think of any legislative session where there hasn't been one bill introduced that talked in some way about unemployment insurance," he said.
During the second special session of the Oregon Legislature on Aug. 10, lawmakers did pass a bill allowing the Department of Revenue to share tax-return information with the Employment Department to speed up processing of unemployment claims from self-employed people and gig workers. The Employment Department already can obtain information from employer payroll records for processing of regular unemployment claims. Employers pay taxes into a state trust fund for unemployment benefits.
But lawmakers rejected a second bill that would have sped up processing of claims from school workers other than teachers and administrators — custodians, food service workers and other staff — who are not paid on a year-round basis. Some lawmakers said the bill amounted to allowing that group to move to the front of the claims line; others said the bill would have reduced the number of people awaiting benefits.
A third bill, which passed, originated with Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle. It will raise the minimum amount of wage earnings (to $300 per week) before unemployment benefits are reduced. Gerstenfeld said it will still take weeks before that change is reflected in unemployment benefits, due to computer-coding requirements, but they will be made retroactive.
Web page for Senate Labor and Business Committee:
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