Unemployed Marine vet waits, frets: ‘3 months behind on rent’

Coronavirus

More than 200,000 people are still waiting for unemployment benefits in Oregon

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The Oregon Employment Department director was forced to resign this weekend as frustration and anxiety mount for people still waiting for benefits.

More than 200,000 people are still waiting for payments in Oregon, including a Marine veteran who has been trying to reach someone in the employment department since the end of March.

Robert Smukalla had been working temp jobs and was also employed at the post office before the COVID-19 pandemic sparked unprecedented statewide closures. But his situation makes his unemployment claim more complex. Robert and his wife, Sophia Smukalla, have tried calling the employment department repeatedly to no avail.

“This entire time we have so many questions and we just want someone to answer the phone and just answer basic questions,” said Sophia.

Robert received a letter on Monday from the employment department informing him he needed to speak with an adjudicator. The couple hopes the letter means they’ll finally get some help because they literally can’t afford to wait any longer.

“We are three months behind on our rent and we’ve never not paid rent,” Sophia told KOIN 6 News on Tuesday. “I mean, I’m scared — the only income that we have coming in is my little jewelry business and that’s been able to get some food and we paid the internet bill.”

The Smukallas are not alone in their desperation. Oregon’s backlog of unemployment claims has crippled the system and left thousands of families in the lurch.

OED: ‘To unemployed Oregonians still waiting, we apologize’
Unemployed mom of 4: ‘Feel like I’m drowning’

Oregon Governor Kate Brown called for Employment Director Kay Erickson’s resignation on Sunday. David Gerstenfeld, the director of the Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance division, is now serving as interim director.

On Saturday, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden called for Erickson’s dismissal saying, “Oregonians thrown out of work through no fault of their own deserve a state Employment Department capable of responding quickly and competently to their urgent needs during this economic and public health crisis.” Wyden concluded his plea for Erikson’s resignation by saying the agency’s “litany of incompetence and unresponsiveness has hit the breaking point,” and that the situation must get fixed immediately.

KOIN coverage: Oregon unemployment issues

KOIN 6 News reached out to Gerstenfeld’s office to find out more about what changes he’s making and what steps will be taken to address the backlog of claims. Gerstenfeld plans to answer these questions and others at a media briefing on Wednesday, June 3.

KOIN 6 News will continue to follow this story.

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