Prusak: No rest until Employment Department is fixed
The coronavirus pandemic and economic downturn is severely impacting all of us. One of the many tragedies of this crisis is the massive unemployment caused by shutdowns, and the failure of the Oregon Employment Division to get people the benefits they are owed and rely upon to survive.
Over the past several months, hundreds of thousands of Oregonians have applied for unemployment benefits and dealt with a severe backlog and a frustrating lack of communication. Far too many of them are still painfully awaiting their benefits. I understand that we are in an unprecedented situation and appreciate the challenges. But this is unacceptable.
My office speaks daily with constituents who still haven't received a paycheck after months of waiting. We do everything we can to get everyone who reaches out their benefits. Daily, we contact the Employment Division to highlight the dire situation for families across the state and here in House District 37.
My office has had some successes working with our Employment Department liaison: We advocated for school bus drivers who are out of work and now they can begin receiving their desperately needed benefits.
We were in touch with an out-of-work single mom with cancer in need of money for her car payment who is now, finally, receiving benefits. But sadly, for every success story, thousands more people in my district and across the state haven't heard back from the Employment Department and remain stuck in limbo, even with direct advocacy from legislators.
My colleagues and I have worked to help people get food, medicine and money, but I know it is not enough. Our work can't make up for the inadequacy of the Employment Department response, and we have been demanding answers and updates from the OED and Gov. Kate Brown.
I'm glad leadership came together to provide a one-time stimulus check Oregonians waiting for their unemployment checks, but this is not a solution. Thousands of people still won't know how they're going to pay for groceries or rent. We need to fix the system to make sure this never happens again, and I'm committed to making that happen.
That's why I've called on the Oregon Employment Department to immediately begin the following:
n Establish an appointment system. Many other agencies have created appointments so that desperate Oregonians don't have to spend entire days waiting on hold, just to get disconnected.
n Deliver clear information to claimants about what their individual hold-up is so it can be remedied. When Oregonians get a message from an OED worker, there should be information in the message about why they are being contacted, what documentation is needed and how they can get information back to the agency.
n Dramatically speed up the adjudication process and be more transparent. Little information is provided about the process, or when claims will be released.
n Improve written communication and use clearer language on applications, site and letters. OED should have someone evaluate the language they use to ensure it is clear to people who don't speak employment department jargon.
n Expand work from home. OED should take immediate action to allow work from home for their employees. This will keep the hardworking OED employees safe and will drastically improve efficiency in the department.
Additionally, I've called on our congressional delegation to continue advocating for more flexibility with federal unemployment rules and an extension of the additional $600 per week payments.
People in our community are hurting and desperate. While I'm proud to have been able to help some constituents through the process, far too many are still in need, living in fear they'll lose their housing or won't have enough to pay for medicine or food.
I won't rest until we've fixed these problems in the long term. I'm going to keep fighting to make sure every Oregon worker has what they need to make it through this downturn.
Rachel Prusak has represented House District 37, including Tualatin, West Linn, Durham, Rivergrove and Stafford, in the Oregon House of Representatives since 2019. A Democrat, she lives in West Linn.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.