OED: ‘To unemployed Oregonians still waiting, we apologize’

Coronavirus

More than 441,000 claims filed since pandemic began

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The heads of the Oregon Employment Department and the family and medical leave insurance division testified to an Oregon House committee on what’s being done to clear up the backlog of unemployment claims in the state — and apologized to claimants.

OED Director Kay Erickson and David Gerstenfeld, the director of the Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance Division, provided their insights to the House Committee on Business and Labor.

Their testimony came one day after Erickson announced the OED launched Project Focus 100, which has a goal of processing every one of the 38,000 claims backlogged in the system.

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About 441,000 regular unemployment insurance claims have been filed and only about half are receiving payments.

“In the coming weeks we will be doubling down on our efforts to get your benefits to you,” Erickson said Wednesday.

Project Focus 100 will use four strategies: continue surge hiring, use the experienced employees to work through the oldest and most complex claims, check the status of an existing claim and use technology to close gaps and improve service.

Erickson said the OED has hired “six times the number of people processing claims than were in place before COVID-19 closures began.”

Many are frustrated this wasn’t done sooner and also wonder why the OED’s antiquated computer system was never upgraded. The antiquated computer system, which is about 30 years old, caused a number of delays and is the reason Oregon still hasn’t waived the waiting week for people seeking benefits.

The Oregon Employment Department (KOIN, file)

Officials said it would take thousands of hours to update the system — and that could hold up benefits to claimants.

The unemployment rate was at a record low rate immediately before the pandemic hit and OED also had record-low staffing. Now they are continuing to hire staff but said it takes 6-8 weeks to train them to process claims.

“To our customers, I know in these uncertain times waiting for confirmation of your unemployment benefits can be agonizing,” Erickson said. “For the thousands of Oregonians who are still waiting, we do apologize.”

KOIN coverage: Oregon unemployment issues

Between this Friday and June 12, the department will work diligently to resolve the claims for those who have been waiting the longest.

“We have a lot of people who are still struggling, as you know and we have a lot of people who don’t know what the status is and how we’re figuring out who’s being contacted, who’s fallen through the cracks, how do we get people to call them up and address it,” Rep. Paul Holvey said. “It’s very difficult with the thousands and thousands of cases before you.”

Committee members now have until Friday to submit questions for the Oregon Employment Department.

KOIN 6 News will continue to follow this story.

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