Old tech in way of GOP plan for extended unemployment

Coronavirus

"That's something that may take months to program"

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits created by the federal CARES Act effectively ended Saturday. Now, it’s up to Congress to decide what those benefits look like moving forward. But what will that mean for Oregonians?

For many people, that extra $600 was the reason they could continue paying bills and rent. Losing it is a big deal for Oregon families and unfortunately, Congress did not act quickly enough to keep it going or put something else in its place before it expired.

The Heroes Act, which is a $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill, was passed by the House in May. It includes extending the extra $600 benefit, but Senate Republicans are now proposing cutting the emergency unemployment benefits from $600 to $200 a week until states could switch to a system that would pay people 70% of what they were making before they lost their jobs. However, implementing that kind of program would be a challenge for states like Oregon that are already facing major backlogs in their state employment departments.

Acting Director of the Oregon Employment Department David Gernstenfeld expressed concerns about how the proposal would impact existing workflow at the department.

“It’ll be a real challenge for us to juggle and the biggest concern is that if it is that complicated, we might not be able to get those benefits out to people as quickly as they need them,” said Gernstenfeld. “The sliding scale portion gets really, really complicated and we’re still looking into it. But, unfortunately in Oregon and a lot of other states, that’s something that may take months to program in, and during that time, it means our folks wouldn’t be able to be working on some of the other changes that we need to make.”

As Gerstenfeld said, Oregon isn’t the only state that would struggle to implement a program that calculates benefits on a sliding scale. The National Association of State Workforce Agencies estimated that it would take most states eight to 20 weeks to move to the system. In Oregon, it would also impact the state’s ability to finally waive the waiting week—the first week that a person’s claim meets the eligibility requirements, but does not receive benefits.

“What I fear is that it really could impact our ability to work on the waiting week because that is other work that has to be done in our computer systems—the same people, the same computer system,” said Gernstenfeld.

Senator Ron Wyden, who is in favor of extending the $600 payments, released a statement Monday that said “their plan would cripple state unemployment offices, delaying the deployment of benefits.”

“State unemployment offices are operating with ancient technology and struggling to get benefits out the door as is. Any effort to make the system more complex is sabotage. It will result in workers losing their benefits and more workers falling through the cracks.

“Here is the worst of it: the low-wage workers who have been most likely to lose their jobs in this recession would be paid even less than their previous starvation wages. Cutting their benefits and making it even harder to make ends meet for the folks who had the least cushion to withstand an economic crisis is unconscionable.

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