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Oregon Lawmakers Air Frustrations, Seek Answers From Employment Department

Oregon's House Interim Committee On Business and Labor met via video conference on May 30, 2020, to questions leaders of the state's Employment Department about challenges and delays to unemployment benefits.
Oregon's House Interim Committee On Business and Labor met via video conference on May 30, 2020, to questions leaders of the state's Employment Department about challenges and delays to unemployment benefits.

Before a three-hour hearing Saturday, Oregon Democratic U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden called for the Oregon Employment Department director's resignation.

UPDATE (3:56 p.m. PT) — A special Oregon House committee convened virtually Saturday to question staff members from the state Employment Department on systematic issues surrounding delivering unemployment benefits to Oregonians during the coronavirus pandemic.

“This conversation today is a little bit of a post-mortem,” Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, said Saturday. “How did we get here? And trying to have a better understanding, first and foremost, hopefully to ensure that we never get here again.”

The Employment Department has received more than 445,000 applications for unemployment benefits since March 15. It said Friday it had paid benefits to 245,000 people — about 55% of those who applied.

The remaining applicants were either ineligible for benefits, never filed a weekly claim or are part of the department’s backlog of 38,000 of the oldest, most complicated regular unemployment claims.

Department director Kay Erickson and senior official David Gerstenfeld initially testified during a hearing with the committee Wednesday in which lawmakers did not have time to ask questions.

Committee members called Erickson and Gerstenfeld back Saturday for a three-hour hearing during which they asked clarifying questions about the department’s data, communication practices and backlog of unaddressed unemployment benefit claims — all of which have come under fire.

Shortly before the hearing, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., called for Erickson's resignation.

“Oregonians thrown out of work through no fault of their own deserve a state Employment Department capable of responding quickly and competently to their urgent needs during this economic and public health crisis,” Wyden said in a statement. “Over the past weeks and months, it has become painfully clear that the Oregon Employment Department leadership has totally failed to meet these Oregonians’ needs or to support its own dedicated employees working to process claims.”

Wyden pointed to a “persistent lack of transparency” from the department as well as an “apparent unwillingness to communicate with Oregonians in real time,” as some others in the hearing echoed.

Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha, was the only committee member to mention Wyden’s statement in the hearing Saturday. 

“I’m just really frustrated listening to all of this,” Barker said about 90 minutes into the hearing. “It just seems to me, and I’m sorry to say it, but you’ve been overwhelmed. Maybe someone else needs to take over the leadership of the department and try to get it up and running. I don’t know what else to say.”

Committee Chair Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, said Oregon legislators are willing to do whatever they can to help the department.

“We have 90 legislators that are all receiving hundreds of emails and having contact with people,” Holvey said, asking for the department to provide basic information lawmakers can give to unemployed constituents. “I don’t want to micromanage your response and slow it down by saying, ‘Hey, we can help.’ … I want concrete results. … Give us some tools so that we can help.” 

Erickson said the department is hiring additional senior legislative policy positions.

“I think for sure those folks will be looking out to you trying to categorize and understand what type of questions you’re getting,” Erickson said. “It is helpful for us to hear about the kinds of issues you’re hearing.”

Throughout the hearing, Erickson reiterated the unprecedented amount of claims the department has received since the pandemic began and how it is working to continuously hire new staff to keep up.

Rep. Julie Fahey, D-West Eugene & Junction City, asked about the option to let department employees who are currently on leave work from home, a point that other members brought up as well as a way to bolster the department’s staff. 

Erickson said, like with many of the issues the department is facing, a big barrier is technology — things like access to the department’s phone system and mainframe.

Erickson answered another question posed by Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, similarly, when asked why it takes the Employment Department six weeks to train new employees and why the department can’t expand its hours — even to 24 hours a day.

“The short answer is we are constrained by our technology,” Erickson said.

Bonham asked Erickson what investments have been made to update the department’s technology — pointing specifically to more than $80 million that was given to Oregon from the federal government in 2009, during the Great Recession.

“That money still exists,” Erickson said. “I think for a couple of directors, the funds have been earmarked to modernize our IT system. I have held them for that purpose as well.”

Erickson said it will take years to replace the system and plan for implementation, but she said the department is currently working on an “intent to award” to work with a vendor to begin that work.

“So many of these questions, the answer falls back on, ‘We are constrained by the technology that we have.’ I’m hearing that over and over and over again,” Boshart Davis said. “To say that’s unfortunate that that’s what we’re dealing with today is an understatement.”

Boshart Davis also questioned the department’s preparedness for the situation surrounding the pandemic, comparing it to preparedness for a natural disaster.

“Do you feel that the Employment Department was prepared for a natural disaster?” Boshart Davis said. “Here in Oregon, we have [the] Cascadia [earthquake] that we’re always talking about. We didn’t know this would be a pandemic, but there’s a list of maybe 10 we could possibly come up with really quickly of what a natural disaster could like here in Oregon.”

Erickson answered: “Were we prepared for the situation we’re in today? No. I don’t know how anyone could’ve been prepared.”

Mostly, Erickson and Gerstenfeld rehashed what their department had talked about earlier this week — work like Project Focus 100, where some of the department’s experienced staff will take two weeks away from addressing incoming calls to focus on outreach to address backlogged claims.

“I’m having trouble seeing our way forward here, and I hope I’m wrong,” Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, said. “I just hope we can figure out a way to get outside the box, get into these conversations about telework, get people back on the job, get phones answered.”

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Meerah Powell is a general assignment and breaking news reporter for OPB. She previously worked as a news reporter and podcast producer for Eugene Weekly in her hometown of Eugene, Oregon. Along with writing and audio work, Meerah also has experience with photography and videography. She graduated from the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication.