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Delays in claims processing persist as school employees flood state's Work Share program

As the number of furloughed school employees grows, so too, do the weeks of missed unemployment payments.

PMG FILE PHOTO -  Alicia Nelson, an elementary school teacher in West Linn, connects a student with his family on the last day of classes before the coronavirus pandemic caused schools to close for the rest of the year. Since then, many schools have implemented employee furloughs and teachers are now filing for unemployment.Participants in the state's Work Share unemployment program have waited weeks, and some months, to see money from the program. The long delays within the Oregon Employment Department are no secret. OED acknowledged it's scrambling to address a backlog of 38,000 claims and over the weekend, the agency's director, Kay Erickson, resigned at the governor's request, after calls for her ouster from Sen. Ron Wyden.

Work Share is a separate program from the state's unemployment insurance benefits, but functions similarly, offering unemployment benefits to employees who have lost hours and pay at work, but still have a job.

The program is meant to incentivize employers to avoid layoffs, offering temporary compensation for a portion of the pay cuts.

When the COVID-19 pandemic caused businesses to close or restrict services, and school closures were mandated across Oregon and the United States, some school districts turned to Work Share to fill an impending budget gap.

Portland Public Schools announced its plans for employee furloughs, and other districts, including several in Washington and Columbia counties, quickly followed suit. The plan, PPS said, was to reduce the work week for all employees, from five days to four, thereby reducing employee pay by 20%. In exchange, employees could file for unemployment benefits through Work Share, and also be eligible for weekly federal benefits through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (or CARES) Act.

The surge in claims has multiplied the state's average claims and stymied the Employment Department's processing times.

"The additional workload coming into the program is immense," Gail Krumenauer, a communications director with OED, said on May 15. "Our agency's COVID-19 dashboard shows that we've processed nearly 1,000 Work Share plans in the past two months. For the 12 months before that, we received less than 200 applications for plans."

On May 26, OED announced it would continue "surge hiring" to address a backlog of 38,000 unemployment claims.

But as leaders from the Oregon Employment Department face scrutiny over heavy delays in claims processing, some school employees could be done working for the year before they see any benefits.

State OED employees say claim processing times will be "slower than typical," and could take up to a month for initial claims associated with new Work Share plans to be processed.

How is Work Share different from Unemployment Insurance benefits?

Work Share claims don't require recipients to look for work each week, and the weekly claims are submitted to the state by a company's human resources or administrative department, rather than the employees themselves. Typically, an HR department manages the claims and acts as a middle man.

Are the claims processed the same way as regular unemployment?

"Work Share claims are processed by a different group of employees than regular unemployment claims or Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) claims," said Krumenauer. That should mean staff aren't quite as backlogged as those processing regular UI claims.

With all the state's school employees flooding the program, will it run out of money?

Not likely.

"Oregon has one of the most solvent trust funds of any state in the nation," Krumenauer noted. "We are monitoring our trust fund, and do not see any imminent threats to running out of money. Much of the additional payments that are happening right now — like the additional $600 Pandemic Unemployment Compensation payments — are fully federally funded."

Can I get information about my Work Share claim online?

State OED reps say no, but some furloughed employees reported they were able to check their claim status through the OED website.

"Work Share is supposed to be a program that is managed by the employer, and we currently don't grant access to the claim online," said Juan Serrators, benefit services manager for OED. Most information is relayed to the employer. For those with questions about their claim, OED recommends calling 503-947-1800, or toll free at 800-436-6191.

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