SALEM — About 70,000 Oregonians newly eligible for unemployment benefits — the self-employed, independent contractors, gig and temporary workers — await state processing of their claims.
Having virtually eliminated a backlog of 38,000 claims for regular benefits by a self-imposed deadline of June 12, Employment Department officials have turned their full attention to the new batch of claims created when Congress broadened the categories of eligible workers at the end of March.
Interim Director David Gerstenfeld said June 17 that a total of 97,000 claims have been filed by workers newly eligible under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. Of 24,000 processed so far, he said, just under 17,000 are receiving benefits, totaling $90 million — but the rest remain.
“We know these numbers are discouraging, frustrating, and frankly frightening,” Gerstenfeld said in a conference call with reporters. “It is certainly not the news I had hoped to deliver today. But I am committed to transparency, accountability and swift action.
“We recognize this is a crisis situation and we will continue treating it as one.”
Many of the most experienced claims processors have been reassigned from the old backlog to work on the new claims, along with some newly hired people, for a total of 60. “We have learned how much progress we can make when we have our most experienced staff process those applications,” he said.
But the same coronavirus relief bill that made these workers newly eligible for benefits — the first significant expansion of the unemployment insurance system in decades — also requires states to verify that the workers are ineligible for regular benefits. Gerstenfeld said 79,000 applicants were deemed ineligible for regular benefits, but may be eligible for the new benefits — if they apply separately.
“We have had to create an entirely different claims process outside our normal system,” he said. “Sometimes this requires a detailed review to see if someone is considered an employee or an independent contractor under the law.”
The minimum benefit is $205 per week, though Gerstenfeld said many applicants can qualify for more after their claims are reviewed.
They also qualify for the additional $600 per week in benefits available under the coronavirus relief bill through July 31. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, is pushing for an extension, but it is caught up in congressional politics. The Democratic-led House has passed $3 trillion more in various forms of federal aid. But the Republican majority in the Senate has balked at the price tag, though some are conceding more money is needed to counter the downturn caused by business shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic.
Gerstenfeld said benefits are retroactive to the first week of eligibility, so people who have given up should apply again under the new program.
The agency also added 138 telephone lines — and plans 150 more over the next couple of weeks — to help staff handle calls to and from the newly eligible workers. A dedicated number, 833-410-1004, is reserved for this program.
“We know people are still getting busy signals and are having to wait too long on hold,” Gerstenfeld said.
He said the agency will lay out a timetable, similar to Project Focus 100 for the backlog of regular claims, to inform people generally about how the agency will deal with their claims.
The agency will schedule several webinars, the first planned at 1 p.m. Friday, June 19, to help answer frequently asked questions.
“We are trying to get more information out to answer some of the common questions we are seeing,” he said.
“They are not just numbers. Each number represents either a person we are able to get direly needed benefits to, or a person anxiously waiting for us to do so.”