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Oregon Employment Department Works Toward Lessening Backlog

Employment Building on the Capitol Mall in Salem. Marion County.
Gary Halvorson/Oregon State Archives
Employment Building on the Capitol Mall in Salem. Marion County.

Acting Oregon Employment Department Director David Gerstenfeld said the department has made progress in lessening its backlog, bettering its communication and making materials more accessible.

In a briefing with journalists Wednesday, Gerstenfeld gave updates on unemployment claims amid the pandemic.  

Gerstenfeld, who stepped into his position less than two weeks ago after former director Kay Erickson was ordered to resign, said the department has worked toward lessening its backlog of unemployment claims, increasing communication through new hires and volunteers — including members of the National Guard — and making its processes more accessible for people whose first language is not English.  

“It continues to weigh heavily on me and on every employee in our agency the extraordinarily challenging circumstances that many Oregonians find themselves in as a result of being out of work and not receiving benefits they have earned,” Gerstenfeld said.  

Gerstenfeld said the department has made headway on Project Focus 100, where some of the department’s most experienced staff is taking two weeks away from incoming calls to focus on outreach on the oldest backlogged regular unemployment claims.  

“Our goal on May 29 was to process all 38,000 regular unemployment insurance applications that we had received by June 12,” he said. “As of [June 9], we had processed 85% of those. We remain committed to processing the remaining 5,800 claims by June 12.”  

Gerstenfeld said there are currently about 13,000 initial claims for regular unemployment benefits that have not yet been processed. That number includes the 5,800 applications in Project Focus 100 and recently filed claims, including claims filed this week.  

“Importantly, that 13,000 number is less than the number of new applications that we’re receiving each week,” Gerstenfeld said. “So, we are continuing to make good progress.”  

He said in the past few weeks, the number of initial claims for regular benefits has ranged from 15,000 to 20,000, much less than the peak of applications near 80,000 in weeks in late March and early April.  

Gerstenfeld said the department has also made progress on paying out Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits — those are benefits for people who may not be eligible for regular unemployment benefits, such as contract, gig and self-employed workers.  

He said since April 28 the department has paid out $69 million in PUA benefits, though the department could not state specifically how many claims that amount includes and how many PUA claims are still unprocessed.  

The department also could not confirm whether or not people who work as Uber or Lyft drivers are eligible for the PUA program, a question that has been asked multiple times in the past. Gerstenfeld said the department is unable to give any information on specific claims or specific companies.  

In regard to PUA benefits, Gerstenfeld said in addition to having a local phone number for questions about PUA benefits and claim applications, the department has added a toll-free number as well. Those numbers are 503-370-5400 and 833-410-1004.  

To improve the department’s communication, something it has been criticized for in the past, Gerstenfeld said it has added online resource pages in 15 languages other than English, as well as online instructional videos and other translated materials.  

The department is also continuing to increase its available phone lines, staff and volunteers. Some of those volunteers, as was previously discussed, include members of the National Guard.  

“We’re proud to share that more than 150 employees from the legislative and executive branches of state government and the National Guard have signed up to volunteer time outside of their normal job responsibilities to communicate with Oregonians about the status of their claims,” Gerstenfeld said.  

Those volunteers began making hundreds of calls Tuesday, as the department trained them to reach out to people, he said.  

Along with progress made so far, Gerstenfeld said the department is continuing to keep an eye out for potential fraud cases, like the ones in Seattle in which people stole hundreds of millions of dollars from Washington state by filing fraudulent claims.

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum warned Oregonians Wednesdayto be on the lookout for similar scams.      

Gerstenfeld could not give information on any of the specific tactics the department is using to ward off fraud but said “we do think that some of the same people that are trying to commit fraud in Oregon are doing that in other states. In terms of scale, I’m a little reluctant to talk publicly about what tools we are using to detect it and how much we’ve detected.”  

He said when the department has detected fraud, it has been before any payments have been made.  

“We want to encourage people certainly if they see anything that seems odd, to let us know right away,” Gerstenfeld said.

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.