Oregon, Washington record-setting unemployment skyrockets


Unemployment numbers continue to break records

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Oregon’s and Washington’s initial claims for unemployment benefits have continued to skyrocket, shattering previous records in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.

Oregon numbers

The Oregon Employment Department received 92,700 initial claims for unemployment insurance benefits for the week of March 22. That’s a 21% increase from the previous record — which was set during the week of March 15 when they saw 76,500 claims. OED received 4,900 initial claim filings during the week of March 8. 

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Notably, the greatest number of those initial claims for unemployment benefits came from those in the leisure and hospitality sector, which includes hotels and restaurants. That number comes in at a hefty 15,500 claims.

The counties with the most amount of claims were Multnomah with 10,900, Washington with 5,300 and and Lane 4,200. However, the counties with the steepest percentage increases were Harney and Tillamook.

State of Oregon Employment Department – COVID-19 information

Leaders with the Oregon Employment Department said the record number of claiims is like nothing they’ve ever seen and it’s causing delays. They’ve already doubled the staff taking claims and they’re working to triple the staff.

Officials said they’re also continuing to add secure phone lines to take more calls.

The Oregon Employment Department is encouraging anyone who can file online to do so. Even then, though, some people have run into error messages and are understandably trying to call in to find out why.

“We have identified those claims and we’re actually making an automatic fix for those behind the scenes,” said Gail Krumenauer with the Oregon Employment Department. “So if that happened, you shouldn’t have to call in. It should process your claim for you.”

Transcript of Q&A with Gail Krumenauer at the bottom of this article

Due to the increased level of demand, OED has doubled the amount of employees working the claims. The department also suggests using their online platform in order to lower wait times over the phone.

These latest numbers out of Oregon came on the same day as the Labor Department released its updated numbers that broke a record of their own — with 6.6 million Americans filing for unemployment aid in the last week. Combined with last week’s report that 3.3 million people sought unemployment aid two weeks ago, that brings the total number of layoffs in the U.S. to a whopping 10 million.

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Gov. Brown’s response

In a statement to KOIN 6 News, Gov. Kate Brown’s office said she understands how critical these benefits are right now.

“These are incredibly stressful times for Oregon families. In addition to the federal CARES Act passed by Congress, which will expand unemployment insurance benefits, the Governor and her Coronavirus Economic Advisory Council are continuing to work to find state and federal policy options and resources that are available to help mitigate the impacts this unprecedented crisis has had on working families.”

Washington numbers

Washington continued to see record numbers, as well.

According to the Employment Security Department, new claims for unemployment benefits catapult to a record of 181,975 during the week of March 22. That is a 3,513% increase from last year, and a 41% increase since the previous week.

According to ESD, including the ongoing weekly claims that were filed, the department saw around 350,000 claims come into its claims center over the last week. ESD says this is seven times the peak week during the 2008/2009 recession — when they saw 26,075 weekly claims.

A graph showing the number of unemployment claims in Washington state at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, April 2, 2020 (State of Washington)

Continuing Coverage: Coronavirus

Transcript of Q&A with Gail Krumenauer of the Oregon Employment Department

What’s the situation with unemployment claims in Oregon?

During the week that started March 8th we received 4,900 intial claims for unemployment benefits in Oregon. That jumped to a record 76,500 the week starting March 15th and we’re still tracking at record levels of initial claims now.

What is the Employment Department doing to meet this record level of initial claims?

When we first started seeing the sharp increase in claims our employees that were already here working on taking claims, they increased the number of claims they processed by 4 and a half times over the week. Now in the past couple of weeks we’ve doubled the number of staff taking claims and we’re on track to tripling it.

We’re also adding more phone lines, we need secure phone lines in order to protect the information of the people who are calling in to provide details as to if they can get unemployment benefits. And in addition we’re looking at more IT supports that we can use to help speed up the processing.

Still it’s just, this is a record level of intial claims. It’s not like anything we’ve seen and so that’s causing some frustration for people who are trying to get through and get help.

People are frustrated. What can we do to help them?

We continue to encourage everybody who can file their intial claim online and their weekly claims online. We encourage everybody who can make their claim online to do so. We can process so many more claims online, the vast majority of them. We experience much more difficulty with the phones and so what we found is over the past week the number of calls the intial claims we’ve been able to complete by phone has gone down. And it’s gone down because people who have already filed their intial claim who keep calling back into the system after it’s already been processed online and also several redialing, simultaneous redialing attempts and all of that is jamming the phone system in a way that actually allows fewer number of calls to get through.

And some people do have to complete their claims by phone, right?

Yes, that’s correct. and so if it’s at all possible to file that claim online, and it’s that intial claim that really is the most labor intensive and requires the most work, we really hope everybody who can do that will so that it helps us and they’re helping each other make it a greater opportunity for people who have to file the intial claim by phone to do so.

Have some people run into error messages when filing specifically because of COVID-19 related situations?

Yes, we’ve seen some situations where, for example, somebody might have said someone is on layoff for temporary closure might have said they aren’t looking for work with other employers. And that would not disqualify them in a COVID-19 situation for being eligible for not actively seeking with other employers so long as they’re maintaining connect to their own.

Still they might have received an error message for that. And we have identified those claims and we’re actually making an automatic fix for those behind the scenes. So if that happened you shouldn’t have to call in. It should process your claim for you.

How long will it take me to receive my first unemployment insurance payment?

That’s a really good question and there’s alot of moving parts that really affect that. One of the other things we’re seeing online is someone will sucessfully file an initial claim and then they’ll come back next week to file their weekly claim and it will say that it’s not valid – and it is valid and it’s OK. They don’t have to call in for that even though, of course, that would make you worry, right?

What it is is that we’re catching up, we’re catching up to this really unprecedented level of claims and so we know it’s taking more than a week to get to those intial claims and again we’re really trying our best to ramp up the staff and pursue some more IT-related opportunities that can help speed that up.

If someone does get an error message about an unvalid claim it’s OK, even the claim that had the error messaage we’ve got it and we are going to process it. we’re just catching up.

Some people are worried about paying rent, about making ends meet. What resources are available for these people?

I know they’re worried and the Oregon governor’s office has put together a website called coronavirus.oregon.gov and that serves as a resource with information about where meals are available for kids who need them while they’re out of school. It has more information about the kinds of regulations going into effect to keep people in their homes and I recommend that as a resource for additional information beyond unemployement insurance benefit.

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