Senate panel wraps up three-day hearing and promises to follow up on state agency.

PMG PHOTO: PETER WONG - Members of the Senate Labor and Business Committee, which conducted three days of virtual hearings about the Oregon Employment Department. Clockwise from top left: Chairwoman Kathleen Taylor, D-Milwaukie; Tyler Larson, committee administrator; Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend; Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham; Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton. Not pictured is Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, who joined by telephone.
Oregon lawmakers heard the frustration and felt the fury of people who have been seeking unemployment benefit payments for months.

When the Senate Labor and Business Committee wrapped up three days of hearings Thursday, about a dozen people had testified virtually — and more than six times that many filed statements — as members reviewed the performance of the Employment Department in processing more than half a million claims. Many of them have yet to be resolved.

In addition to more than 550,000 claims for regular benefits from the state unemployment trust fund — which come from employer taxes — the agency has had to deal with more than 100,000 claims from self-employed and gig workers that Congress made newly eligible for federal benefits.

Whether online or in writing, many witnesses at a hearing reserved for public testimony had stories to tell.

One of them was Carrie Pannell, a Portland delivery driver whose job qualified her for the new federal program known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. She said an employee told her that her documentation appeared to be in order, only to be told by others weeks later that she either had to file a new claim — and wait weeks more — or backdate her current claim to July 1. The latter step would have cost her more than two months of eligibility for benefits she felt she was owed.

"For me, it was unbelievable that for a mistake created on their part, there wasn't a better solution than to further penalize me in this case," she said.

Pannell chose not to forgo benefits, but said waiting has a price for her.

"There is a real possibility my car will be repossessed. Being that my car is how I make my living, you can imagine what kind of situation that is going to put me in," Pannell said.

"This is very upsetting. I feel that the failure on the part of the Oregon Employment Department has left me and thousands of Oregonians in a very bad position in an already stressful and uncertain time. Oregonians deserve better."

Other stories

Aubrey Heesch found herself in a different situation.

As a self-employed business owner in Washington County who does work for other businesses, she said she was aware she would most likely qualify only for the new federal program, whose startup in Oregon was still months away for most people. She obtained some regular benefits anyway, even though she told the committee she now realized she should not have claimed them. She said someone at the department left a voice mail saying she did qualify for some regular benefits, but she was unable to reach anyone to discuss her situation.

"It is confusing. It is terrifying. I do not understand what is going on. I cannot get help from a human being to give me directions," she said.

"We are currently in a climate of pointing fingers. I do want to give the acting director some credit and am deeply grateful for the hard-working employees of the department. There are monumental and meaningful steps that need to be taken."

Joshua Ward was not so forgiving. He said a lack of benefit payments has forced him to rack up expenses on high-interest credit cards.

"I've never had to interface with the government to receive benefits," he said. "I was furloughed, like many people were, and thrown into the system. I never got hold of the Employment Department and I got put into a negative feedback loop between the antiquated computer system and then calling and constantly hearing the 'hold' button."

Ward said he blames neither his state representative, Democrat Karin Power of Milwaukie, nor front-line workers at the agency. But he said no one has been held accountable for the agency's performance, not just during the current pandemic but going back a decade.

"Do something. This is a disgrace. I am frustrated. I feel disenfranchised by this whole process," he said. "I'm going to try my best never to have to rely on government again because clearly, you guys can't hold up your end of the bargain."

Agency turnover

In the past seven years, three Employment Department directors in a row have either retired under pressure or been fired by the governor. Two of the ousters were related to software or security failures linked to the agency's mainframe computer system, which dates back three decades and relies on a programming language first introduced in 1959. (A vendor for a new system is pending, a decade after the state received federal money for it.)

Gov. Kate Brown fired the most recent two directors, including Kay Erickson on May 31, the day after the House Business and Labor Committee held hearings on the agency's performance. She replaced Erickson with David Gerstenfeld, who had led the unemployment claims division for several years, but had a different job when Brown named him acting director.

Gerstenfeld spent two days earlier this week testifying to the Senate committee. He heard the public comments on the third day, though he did not speak.

He said later that he took those and other comments to heart.

"We know how much people are suffering," he said in his weekly conference call with the news media. "We are continuing to do everything we possibly can to address those problems, prioritizing getting out payments to those who have been waiting far too long and stopping further problems from arising."

"We see that every day while we are doing our work. We are pushing to ease that pain as quickly as we can. We know that hearing that they should wait just isn't cutting it. It does not help people pay their bills or their rent or their groceries, or ease the fear and pain they are suffering."

Under Gerstenfeld, the agency has eliminated backlogs of 38,000 claims for regular benefits — they are being processed within a couple of weeks of filing — and 70,000 claims for federal benefits for self-employed and gig workers. But thousands in the latter program await adjudication of their claims, which involve getting tax-return information and verifying that they are ineligible for regular benefits.

"We're certainly making a lot of progress," he said. "But we know we are not there yet."

Sept. 22 follow-up

Chairwoman Kathleen Taylor, D-Milwaukie, said the committee will meet again at 1 p.m. Sept. 22 to hear an update from Gerstenfeld and the agency staff about what senators heard this week.

"I learned quite a bit about the complexity of the situation," she said. "There are also some things I was frustrated about, not understanding why they could not be resolved and why things were not being managed in a way that I would like to see them managed. I have learned what some of those challenges are.

"As legislators, I think it would be great to help them in any way we can to get rid of the backlog of claims."

Gerstenfeld did not specify it, but Taylor said the agency staff is preparing to look into some of the details offered during public testimony. She said senators refrained from commenting on individual stories because of privacy concerns.

Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, said virtually every legislator has been beseeched by laid-off workers desperate for help with unemployment claims and other government assistance.

"I have been moved by this issue unlike any other constituent issue in almost 20 years in the Legislature," Hass, who is leaving the Senate, said.

"We have a social justice movement in this country and state. For these people who have been calling our offices for months, this is about social justice. They have lost their jobs and now they go to rely on the insurance benefit they deserve — and it's not there. Where is the justice in that?"

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