Lawsuit aimed at speedier processing of claims and removal of language barriers.

COURTESY: OREGON EMPLOYMENT DEPT - A settlement has been proposed in a class-action lawsuit that the Oregon Law Center filed against the Oregon Employment Department for delays and language barriers in processing unemployment benefit claims.A settlement has been proposed in a class-action lawsuit that the Oregon Law Center filed against the Oregon Employment Department for delays and language barriers in processing unemployment benefit claims.

The proposed settlement was announced by both parties Wednesday, and filed with Multnomah County Circuit Court the previous day.

The settlement will not result in additional money for the 14 named plaintiffs, or anyone else in the class-action suit, who are represented by the Oregon Law Center. The original suit was filed July 7. The center will inform people of the proposed settlement terms between Feb. 12 and March 5, and what the procedure is if they want to object.

One of the named plaintiffs is Lisa Exterovich, a single mother who lost her job during the coronavirus pandemic, when the Employment Department received hundreds of thousands of claims within a few weeks. She supports the proposed settlement.

"The Employment Department is committing to paying people benefits more quickly, working to improve communications with those seeking benefits, and providing assistance to people who don't speak English," she said in a statement furnished to the agency, which issued a release jointly with the law center.

"After I lost my job, I applied for unemployment. I waited months for benefits to begin without knowing what was happening — I couldn't pay rent, and I really worried about how it would affect¬†my daughter and I. I decided to join the lawsuit to be an advocate for myself and other people with similar stories."

The Employment Department has laid out the requirements it agrees to follow as part of the settlement:

• Meet federal timeliness targets for paying benefits, by March 1, and for adjudicating claims, by April.

• Completely work through all claims in adjudication as of mid-January, by March 1.

• Address long wait times for people who have had to restart their claims.

• Improve phone access and access to benefit applications for individuals with limited proficiency in English.

• Allow eligible individuals who were unable to apply for unemployment benefits due to language barriers to backdate their claims to the extent the law allows and create an action plan to address this issue.

The proposed settlement does allow for some flexibility in deadlines, such as when additional work is required to verify a claimant's identity.

Congress, in extending some federal unemployment benefits through March 13, added requirements for verifying the income of self-employed and gig workers applying for benefits under the program know as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. It did so after reports of widespread fraud in some states, including California and Washington.

David Gerstenfeld became the acting director of the Employment Department on May 31, 2020, after Gov. Kate Brown fired his predecessor. He said the agency has made progress as it has paid out more than $7 billion in state and federal benefits in the past 10 months. That exceeds the total paid out during the past decade.

"We have made significant headway since the onset of the pandemic, improving our communication with claimants, offering more services and resources in languages other than English, processing claims more quickly, and closing in on our backlog," he said in a statement. "We are committed to doing right by the Oregonians relying on us, reaching the goals set forth in the proposed settlement, and being transparent about our progress along the way."

The case is Flores de Vega v. Oregon Employment Department.

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Link to basic information about unemployment benefits from the Oregon Employment Department:

Link to Oregon Law Center information about proposed settlement:

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