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Oregon was among the slowest to pay unemployment benefits after the outbreak of the pandemic

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Oregon has moved slower than most states to tackle the deluge of jobless claims in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, with tens of thousands of laid-off workers routinely waiting weeks or months for their jobs. silver.

While all states struggled to pay benefits in an unprecedented wave of layoffs last spring, Oregon appears to have been unusually slow. According to a new analysis of federal data by The Oregonian / OregonLive, the state was often less than half as likely to pay claims under the federal three-week standard for timely payments than the national average.

Oregon was catching up all year round, even as the financial situation of many people deteriorated. Among the long-delayed claims nationwide, Oregon was among the slowest, according to data collected by the US Department of Labor.

In August, for example, more than a third of people receiving their first benefits had waited at least 70 days. That’s a higher share than any other state, and is consistent with the Oregons ranking the other months.

In addition, the federal agency says Oregon is the only state that has yet to pay claims for the first week after workers lost their jobs, the so-called waiting week.

Oregon owes hundreds of millions of dollars to workers who lost their jobs between March and August, and department chief David Gerstenfeld says he doesn’t expect to make the payments until late November, eight months after Congress authorized federal payments.

The Oregon Department of Employment says federal punctuality data overestimates Oregon’s lags relative to other states. This is partly because the numbers do not take into account the backlog of unpaid claims that still accumulate elsewhere, and partly because Oregon has focused on paying the oldest claims first, which gives the impression that the state has an unusual share of delays.

Yet Oregons’ response data remained consistent throughout the spring and summer, regardless of the length of the late payment, and was always at or near the bottom of the national rankings.

I am very, very frustrated with them. It really brings tears to my eyes, said Jill Heininge, 37, of Tualatin. She quit her job as an addiction counselor in March when her children’s daycare closed and used up her savings over the summer while scratching and caring for three young children before returning to work recently.

The ministry informed her last spring that it had rejected her application, pending more information on why she was out of work. Like many other Oregonians, Heininge regularly called and emailed the department, but received no response until Thursday, when she received a voicemail from the Oregon Department of Employment stating that ‘he was now ready to consider his case.

It really sucks that they do that to people, you know? Said Heininge. She said she believed the department owed her $ 10,000 in benefits.

I know they take care of a lot of people, Heininge said, but they need a better process of communicating with people.

Oregon has paid well over $ 5 billion in unemployment benefits since the coronavirus shutdown began in the states in March, and it is now processing new claims almost immediately. But 48,000 people are still waiting for old claims to be adjudicated and it could take months for the state to clear the backlog.

The source of the Oregons’ problems is well understood. The employment department suffered from a decade of dysfunction that prevented the state from replacing obsolete 1990s computers, even though it received $ 86 million to fund a technology overhaul in 2009 (the state still has most of that money.)

Each of the last three directors of employment departments has been fired or asked to leave, most recently in May when Governor Kate Brown replaced Kay Erickson as head of the department.

The new analysis of federal data suggests that Oregon has moved more slowly, at least initially, than many states in settling claims:

  • Before the pandemic, Oregon paid almost all unemployment claims within the three-week deadline for timely payments. As of August, only 31% of claims were paid during this period, half the national average.
  • Among claims paid in August, Oregon had the highest nationwide share of claims delayed by at least five weeks.
  • In September, Oregon was behind all states except Kentucky in timely payments at 36%. (A few states have not yet submitted September data.)

I’m not surprised and in a strange way I guess I’m relieved to know that there are no worse places than Oregon, with people having even more miserable experiences, said the Senator Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, who criticized the employment department in recent legislative hearings. summer.

Like other lawmakers, Hass said his office had been besieged by calls and emails from voters who had failed to get their unemployment benefits. He proposed a major overhaul of the employment department, suggesting that Oregon combine it with the states economic development agency.

Hopefully they’ve set up a task force or commission to reorganize the whole department, Hass said. Give it a new name, give it a new mission, put in it people who are change agents who understand their mission.

Gerstenfeld, the agency’s chief, said federal data on timely payments does not accurately reflect the state’s performance at this time. He said the historic Oregons figures are skewed because they obscure claims in other states that have gone completely unpaid, and because Oregon has decided to prioritize older claims.

I don’t think that shows Oregon has been at the bottom of the pack in everything, Gerstenfeld said.

Like other states, Oregon was caught off guard in the early days of the pandemic, receiving as many unemployment claims in a matter of weeks as it usually does for an entire year. Since then, Gerstenfeld said the state has made steady progress in reducing the number of people waiting for their benefits.

The backlog was absolutely increasing. It was in full growth and it increased dramatically in March and April. And it took a lot of effort to start reducing that, Gerstenfeld said. He said federal data is an incomplete picture and does not reflect the state’s progress in catching up even as other states continue to increase their own arrears.

The employment service has made demonstrable progress since the first months of the pandemic, although this does not appear in federal data. That’s because the data shows how long people had to wait for past claims to be paid, not how quickly newly filed claims are paid now.

Gerstenfeld said new requests are typically processed within days or out of business within weeks. He said some states are still adding to their backlog while Oregon is steadily reducing it.

As long as we focus on the oldest claims first, we will continue to pay them and those will continue to make those numbers look bad, Gerstenfeld said.

He added that Oregon had moved relatively quickly to implement new benefit programs this year, including the weekly bonus payment of $ 600 approved by Congress in March, and a temporary weekly benefit of $ 300 that started in August. (Both of these benefits have since expired.)

However, Gerstenfeld admitted that Oregon is the last to pay the waiting week, which means thousands of Oregonians have been waiting for months for federal payments of at least $ 800 each. The ministry says it is on track to pay for the waiting week by the end of November, but if it misses that target and does not make payments by the end of the month. year, Oregon stands to lose hundreds of millions of federal dollars earmarked for laid-off workers.

I’m not disputing that Oregon is at the bottom of the list for the wait week payout, Gerstenfeld said.

Reed College political science professor Chris Koski said government agencies that have problems during good times will see those problems exacerbated during bad times. And he said that an agency like the employment department, with which most citizens interact episodically, often does not receive the supervision needed to identify and eliminate problems before a crisis strikes.

Legislatures don’t really pay them much attention during the good times, Koski said. This type of system allows workplace cultures to fit in and there isn’t a lot of oversight.

Still, Koski said there seems to be something distinctive about Oregon that is preventing it from solving chronic issues or successfully tackling important new initiatives. He points to the states’ underperforming education system and the failure of the Cover Oregon healthcare portal, among other examples.

States that are dominated by a single political party, whether Democratic or Republican, often lack the competitive motivation to find and identify long-standing problems, Koski said. Or maybe the Oregon is too focused on electing leaders who make big promises on big issues and are less inclined to come up with politicians with the aptitude and interest to make sure agencies governments perform their basic functions well.

It’s not like we don’t have a tax base to deal with this stuff, Koski said. Something else is happening.

– Mike Rogoway | Twitter: @rogoway | 503-294-7699



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