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As ‘Benefits Cliff’ Looms, COVID-19 Hits Oregon Employment Department

The Oregon Employment Department's homepage.
The Oregon Employment Department's homepage.

About 70,000 Oregonians are expected to lose unemployment benefits this month. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has hit the agency’s largest claims center.

At a somber press briefing Wednesday, the acting director of the Oregon Employment Department had hard news for people receiving – and processing – unemployment benefits in the state.

David Gerstenfeld said about 70,000 Oregonians are poised to lose their unemployment benefits by the end of the month as federal help expires.

“It is a really dire situation,” he said.

Congress has so far failed to extend relief beyond that so-called “benefits cliff.” The expiring benefits include Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, a novel safety net program for independent contractors and other workers who don’t qualify for regular unemployment benefits.

Without immediate action, that lifeline ends the day after Christmas.

Against that backdrop, Gerstenfeld announced that a COVID-19 outbreak at the agency’s Wilsonville claims center had expanded, prompting a scramble to essentially evacuate employees who can begin teleworking for the first time.

“Our goal is to get as many people out as we can,” Gerstenfeld said. He couldn’t provide an exact target, but hoped it would be “in the hundreds.”

With roughly 600 employees, the Wilsonville building is the agency’s largest workplace. It is a major artery in the unemployment claims processing system. At least twelve workers there have reported positive coronavirus cases since November 16.

The building will remain open, Gerstenfeld said Wednesday, and will appear on the Oregon Health Authority’s list ofworkplace coronavirus outbreaks.

The Employment Department drew heat early in the pandemic for not allowing claims specialists to work from home like other employees. Former director Kay Erickson cited technological constraints, as well as security concerns for unemployed workers’ private data.

Under Gerstenfeld’s leadership, the agency began a modest work-from-home pilot program aimed at adjudicators, who research and investigate eligibility issues with claims.That effort accelerated in July when a coronavirus outbreak hit a smaller agency office in Gresham. Now the Wilsonville infections have ramped up the urgency again, on a larger scale.

“The rapid and significant shift to remote work will cause real disruptions in our ability to get work done at the pace we have been,” Gerstenfeld warned.

He said initial claims processing could be delayed, as well as adjudication and responses to ‘contact us’ queries.

The expiration of benefits at the end of the month is not limited to PUA. A benefits extension program known as Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, or PEUC, is also slated to end.

As a result of Oregon’s falling unemployment rate, a different extension program called Extended Benefitswill be reduced in scope. After mid-December, Oregonians who exhaust their regular unemployment benefits can get up to 13 weeks of additional benefits through that program, rather than 20 weeks.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Kate Davidson is OPB’s business and economics reporter. Before moving to Oregon, she was a regular contributor to "Marketplace", a reporter at Michigan Radio focused on economic change in the industrial Midwest and a producer at NPR.