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Automated phone line is a backup to internet access in aftermath of winter storms.

The acting director of the Oregon Employment Department offers advice to people to minimize potential disruptions from the recent winter storms.

David Gerstenfeld says people can file their weekly claims for unemployment benefits through the agency's automated claims telephone line at 1-800-982-8920 if they have lost power and access to the internet. Or they can wait until later in the week.

This call-in option applies only to claims for regular benefits from the state trust fund, Extended Benefits from federal funds, and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which offers up to 24 weeks of federal benefits beyond the regular 26 weeks from the state trust fund. Self-employed and gig workers, who are covered by a federal program known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, cannot file claims by telephone.

The line offers options in English, Spanish, Russian, Vietnamese and Mandarin Chinese. Gerstenfeld said the three latter languages were added recently. He also said people can call at 503-606-6969 or email at (use contact button) for free interpretation services.

If people do have power and access to the internet, Gerstenfeld says they should continue to file their claims online by the usual deadline of Saturday, Feb. 20.

If people miss that deadline, either by failing to call or file online, he said, "They will need to restart their claim next week and backdate their claim. But they can still do that online."

Gerstenfeld, in a weekly conference call with reporters, said the agency has received questions about whether federal aid will be available under Disaster Unemployment Assistance, as it was following the Labor Day wildfires that swept the state.

He said aid will hinge upon whether President Joe Biden declares a federal disaster as a result of the winter storm. Gov. Kate Brown has declared a state of emergency, but that in itself does not trigger federal aid.

"We are preparing now, including what it will take to update our technology and other systems, to implement it for these storms," he said. "It will be a big effort for us to get that program started."

Federal disaster aid provided some unemployment benefits for workers as a result of the wildfires, but the number was small.

Gerstenfeld said business closures resulting from the winter storm, or employees unable to get to work because of it, can qualify people for regular unemployment benefits — and many more did qualify for those benefits from the Labor Day wildfires.

"Most people who are unemployed as a result of these winter storms are likely eligible for benefits under an existing program," he said. "Those people should go ahead and apply for benefits now."

Power outages and related problems have forced temporary closures of the agency's offices in Oregon City and Woodburn, and Gerstenfeld said some employees have been unable to come to work or work from home. "We anticipated that any disruptions to our work to help people will be short-lived," he said.

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