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Business and Labor

Oregon Applies For $300 Weekly Unemployment Boost

The Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019.
OPB
The Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019.

Oregon is applying for President Trump's weekly $300 boost to unemployment benefits. Also, Oregon lawmakers plan to hold three days of hearings next week on the state's problems delivering unemployment benefits

Oregon is applying for President Trump’s $300 weekly boost to unemployment benefits. But the move is far from a ringing endorsement.

The supplemental benefit is expected to last just three to five weeks, according to David Gerstenfeld, acting director of the Oregon Employment Department.

“While well-intended, this program does not meet the needs of unemployed Oregonians,” he said in a statement. “We need Congress to pass a much more robust program to give Oregonians the help they need and deserve in this pandemic. While this program does not provide enough support, the Employment Department is committed to getting all assistance possible to Oregonians.”

President Trump created the supplemental benefit through a presidential memorandum that created confusion at OED and in employment departments around the country.

The measure diverted up to $44 billion in federal disaster relief funds to temporarily increase unemployment payments. That followed the July expiration of a popular $600 enhanced weekly benefit, which Congress has since failed to renew.

But the new program was — and is — riddled with uncertainty.

Among the questions Gerstenfeld has raised: How much will it cost Oregon to administer the program? How long will the benefits last? Would Oregon have to assume the full cost of the benefits if federal money runs out? What happens if one or more natural disasters sap the fund of money during hurricane season?

According to FEMA, states will only be guaranteed funds for three weeks, after which disbursements will be made on a week-by-week basis. Once Oregon’s payments begin, they should be retroactive to the week ending August 1.

Washington decided to apply for the funds last week.

OED’s announcement Monday described the enhanced benefit as an extra $300 per week, suggesting the state will not chip in an extra $100 per week as allowed by the program.

Meanwhile, Oregon lawmakers plan to hold hearings next week on the state’s systemic problems delivering unemployment benefits. The three days of hearings come at the request of Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem.

“The Oregon Employment Department has a heavy burden,” he said in a statement. “This is no time for blame or finger pointing. The Executive Branch and the Legislature must all chip in to help.”

OED has received a historic flood of claims — almost 700,000 — since the pandemic hit. Some of those are duplicate claims for both regular unemployment and federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits.

The agency has paid out $3.9 billion in unemployment benefits so far. Still, countless Oregonians have yet to see a dime. As the months stretch on, their crisis mounts.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Labor and Business will hear from OED on its progress. Then, on Thursday, senators plan to hear directly from people who have applied for unemployment.

Lawmakers say they plan to review the agency’s administration of benefits and see what they can do to help.

Gerstenfeld faced lawmakers earlier this spring. In May, he appeared as a top deputy to former OED director Kay Erickson, just days before her ouster. Then, on June 1, Gerstenfeld testified again, that time as the department’s new leader.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting.