PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Thousands of Oregonians are still trying to file for unemployment benefits as state employees try to process a massive backlog of claims.
Another 14,100 initial claims for unemployment were filed in Oregon between May 3-9, the Oregon Employment Department said. Since mid-March, 396,000 residents have filed for unemployment.
Meanwhile, Oregon has 50,000 back-logged unemployment claims, not including claims for the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.
The program was launched two weeks ago to help people like Sara Hicks and her husband. Sara is a decorative painter and she hasn’t had any income since late March. She applied in March for unemployment benefits and reapplied under the new PUA program.
Sara said she called the employment department hundreds of times trying to find out why her claim was being denied. She finally emailed KOIN 6 News when she couldn’t get an answer.
Sara said the employment department sends her an email each week she files a claim, telling her she is “non-valid” and can’t receive benefits.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced in April she would waive the state’s “waiting week” policy. But Gail Krumenauer with the employment department explained why the policy is still in place.
“If we go in and start messing around with programming—that very foundational, underlying part of our system—it creates a true risk of not being able to pay out that record number of benefits right now when the most people need them,” Krumenauer said.
The employment department recently opened a new office for employees strictly in charge of processing claims. Prior to COVID-19, there were 106 processing claims. Today, there are nearly 700.
Krumenauer said the employment department has a relatively new phone system but she admitted there aren’t enough lines to handle everyone trying to get through.
Complicating matters are the department’s outdated computers and software.
“Our claims-processing system is a mainframe system that does date back,” Krumenauer said. “It’s decades old, to the ‘90s.”
But updates to old systems have been in the works even before the pandemic pushed the state’s employment department past its limits. Krumenauer said just before the coronavirus shut down businesses across Oregon, they were close to choosing a company to modernize their systems. The first task was going to be updating the unemployment claims system.
Still, Krumenauer pointed out Oregon isn’t alone: many other states are also struggling to process a record number of unemployment claims.