© 2020 | Jefferson Public Radio
KSOR Header background image 1
a service of Southern Oregon University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Labor & Employment

Q&A: Getting To The Bottom Of Oregon's Unemployment Delays

838180733.jpg
Bryan M. Vance/OPB
The Oregon Employment Department's Unemployment Insurance online claim system, pictured on Friday, April 17, 2020.

The rules that have governed Oregon’s unemployment system for decades were upended last month when Congress passed the CARES Act.

At first, it looked like nothing but good news for the tens of thousands of workers facing sudden unemployment following Gov. Kate Brown’s “stay home” order: For the first time in history, self-employed freelancers and gig-economy workers could access the unemployment system. The CARES Act promised a $600 bonus for people newly out of work and faster access to benefits. And the law temporarily waived the requirement that people apply for jobs every week – an acknowledgment that there is very little work available in many fields.

But with close to 300,000 Oregonians filing initial unemployment claims since mid-March, the state’s Employment Department has not been able to deliver on the federal government’s promises. The agency’s own data show that it’s only been able to process about 64% of the unemployment claims it’s received since March 11.

Gig workers who should be eligible for benefits for the first time report they are repeatedly rejected by computer systems that don’t know how to handle their claims.

Financially stressed laid-off workers are overloading the agency’s phones. Last week, the Employment Department only answered about four in every 10 calls – and that was after people waited on hold an average of two hours.

Oregon Employment Department Communications Manager Gail Krumenauer is urging people to keep trying and not give up.

Krumenauer says people who are unemployed should submit claims and then keep applying for unemployment once a week, even if the computer system seems to reject them. That’s the best way to gain access to benefits once the state Employment Department gets caught up. She also says people should look to the agency’s special COVID-19 information website to learn how the CARES Act benefit expansion is being implemented in Oregon.

“It’s not getting to everyone as fast as they need it, I know that. I’m not insensitive to that at all,” she said. “It is heartbreaking. We are working as hard as we can on the benefits part.”

We asked OPB audience members for their questions about applying for unemployment. Here are the answers we’ve found so far.

I filed for unemployment over a month ago. When will I get my first check?

Maybe tomorrow. Maybe not for a long time. It’s impossible to be certain at this point.

“As of last week, from first initial claim to first check was on average three weeks,” Krumenauer said.

“That’s one average for a few hundred thousand people in super unique and different situations.”

The answer partly depends on the specific circumstances of your application – if you are eligible for the extra benefits approved by the CARES Act or you’re an independent contractor only newly eligible for this kind of benefit, for example, it could take longer.

Other complicated claims, such as from people who had already been in and out of unemployment before COVID-19 economic restrictions, or from people who face garnishment of their benefits, could also take longer.

And how long you have to wait also seems to depend on luck, as the state’s Employment Department is overwhelmed and may take some time to get caught up with everyone.

But even if you are seeing computer rejections and the money is not coming through, you should continue to file every week, Krumenauer emphasized.

I am self-employed and unable to work because of COVID-19. How do I access unemployment benefits that are supposed to be available now?

"When in doubt, file a claim," Krumenauer said. "If they are self-employed, they are probably going to get a denial under our system.” But that’s a software denial, and should not be taken as the final word. It’s just that the state has not been able to update its computer system as quickly as the law has changed.

And after filing your application, keep applying every week – even if you get errors, Krumenauer said. Weekly applications are required for everyone who wishes to be paid unemployment benefits. Continuing to file while you wait for the state to catch up will protect you when Oregon is eventually able to pay your benefits.

Will people whose claims were not processed correctly be able to get them corrected and get the money that’s due? You can't get through by phone and they are taking forever to answer emails while weeks pass without checks.

“They won’t lose out on benefits because it’s hard to get through on the phone and they had a problem online,” Krumenauer said.

People should keep filing every week, even if they get errors, she said, and wait for the state’s newly hired Employment Department workers to catch up with them.

Why is it so hard to get information about the status of my unemployment claim? I have had to email, call repeatedly, and wait on hold at length, only to be told that my application had been held for three weeks because of an incorrectly answered question. Why are we not receiving prompt letters or other follow-up?

“In non-pandemic times, if you lose your job, we verify your pay by using information already given by your employer as part of their payroll, which says what your earnings were,” Krumenauer said. “Benefits are linked to data they already have.”

The CARES Act brought a temporary change to rules that have been in effect for decades – so people should be able to access benefits even when the state’s computers can’t quickly verify their past employment. At the same time, COVID-19-related economic restrictions brought mass layoffs and job losses that put an unprecedented demand on the state Employment Department.

It’s hard to get through because there are still not enough workers processing unemployment claims to keep up with all the calls – and because the computer programs that have worked for decades have still not been updated to handle the new rules, Krumenauer said.

Has the employment department hired more workers to keep up with all the new claims?

Yes, but it’s not caught up yet.

"It seems like a lifetime ago, but the backdrop of this pre-crisis was a 3.3% unemployment rate, a record low going back to 1976,” Krumenauer said. “As an agency, we don't keep hundreds of extra staff around when claims are at their lowest. So we had about 100 staff dedicated to taking claims on March 8th. By April 10th, we were up to 450."

The agency is still hiring, with a goal of getting to 800 people who can process unemployment claims.

The Employment Department’s new hires are still getting trained on the job, and as they learn their duties they will be digging out from a mountain of claims. It’s not clear how long it will take before the state is able to keep up.

“There’s been an absolute crush of new claims. We processed more claims in the first three months of 2020 than in the entire calendar year of 2019.” And most of those claims were filed in the second half of March.

My hours were cut significantly because of COVID-19. How do I access partial unemployment benefits?

You’ll be able to access partial benefits only if your employer is willing to jump through hoops by signing up for the Work Share program, Krumenauer said.

Under this program, employers voluntarily make an agreement with the Oregon Employment Department to temporarily reduce employee hours, and workers with reduced hours are eligible for partial unemployment

Separate staff within the Employment Department run the Work Share program, so your boss should not have to wait for hours on the same line as people calling about benefits, Krumenauer said.

Is the federal unemployment of $600 per week pro-rated if you've been cut to part-time? Or do you get either the full amount or nothing at all if you're partially unemployed?

It’s not that simple. The $600 boost is for people who are completely unemployed. If your hours were cut and your employer participates in the Work Share program, you should be able to get additional financial assistance. But if your employer does not opt in to the program and you still have some paid work, you may be out of luck.

Gov. Kate Brown just waived the waiting period for unemployment benefits. Why was it there in the first place?

According to the National Employment Law Project, waiting periods were put in place across the country to reduce the cost and administrative burden of running unemployment programs. When unemployment benefits were still a new concept in the early 20th Century, “...there was concern that paying benefits for longer durations would not be affordable, so waiting periods of two, and even four weeks, were found in state UI (unemployment insurance) laws,” NELP wrote on an information sheet about waiting periods.

In 1980, the U.S. Congress passed financial incentives for states to implement one-week waiting periods, and most states adopted that policy.

The CARES Act allows states to temporarily suspend the week-long wait.

Oregon’s governor initially did not take that opportunity, saying it would take “thousands of hours of programming to make this change.”

But as unemployment claims have surged and pressure on the governor mounted, Brown reversed course last week and said she would work with the Employment Department to waive Oregon’s waiting period.

Will I get paid for my first week out of work if I filed before the governor waived the waiting period? What about people who waited to file because they were following the old rules? Will we get paid for the week retroactively?

“I don’t know,” Krumenauer said. It’s only been a few days since the governor directed the Employment Department to waive the waiting period, and the agency is still determining how to respond.

Brown, however, said she is “committed to ensuring that all eligible Oregonians receive the maximum benefits available to them.”

Other states have struggled to make upgrades to their unemployment computer systems, which use arcane programming languages such as COBOL. Is Oregon in the same boat?

Yes. And Krumenauer said there are benefits to the old technology most of the time.

“COBOL was built to be sturdy and reliable,” she said. And it has been up until now.

"We are a mainframe system,” she said, adding that, “There are modernized systems that aren't doing any better.”

While some states have not been able to hire programmers to update their old COBOL code, that is not a problem here in Oregon, Krumenauer said. But it still takes time to write new programs and test them to make sure that they work.

“We have really dedicated and talented staff,” she said. “People are working weekends and giving up holidays with their families to get this going.”

In future stories, OPB will seek answers to your questions about the IRS’s direct stimulus payments to individuals and about COVID-19-related small-business financial support. To submit your questions, email us at questions@opb.org.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.