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Oregon Shifts Unemployment Focus To Backlog Of Gig Worker Claims

The Oregon Employment Department's COVID-19 information website.
The Oregon Employment Department's COVID-19 information website.

The Oregon Employment Department on Wednesday said it has processed most of the backlog of its oldest regular unemployment insurance claims. It is now shifting its focus to gig workers, contract workers and self-employed people.

“We have now processed 99% of those initial claims,” the department’s acting director David Gerstenfeld said Wednesday in a media briefing. “We are almost entirely caught up in processing the regular unemployment insurance claims, although we do, of course, continue to receive more claims each day.”  

He said now that most of the work in Project Focus 100 is complete, the department can shift toward getting benefits to those people who have not yet received unemployment benefits under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, program, created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. 

From its preliminary numbers, Gerstenfeld said, the department has received about 97,000 applications for PUA benefits. About 24,000 of those people have been found to be eligible for those benefits so far, he said, and about 17,000 of those eligible people have already been paid benefits.  

“That means, we have about 70,000 PUA claims left to enter into the new claims system to process those and get benefits to people,” Gerstenfeld said.  

Gerstenfeld said the PUA program, new to Oregon as of late-April, is a more intensive process than that for regular unemployment. Along with creating a totally separate claims system for the program, he said, federal law requires the department to first do everything it would to process a regular unemployment claim and then look at the additional PUA requirements.  

Gerstenfeld said the department is now beginning an effort it calls "Focus PUA,” in which it will work to improve the speed, technology and proactive communication in processing these claims.  

Like in the earlier Project Focus 100 program, Gerstenfeld said, the department will be shifting skilled employees to work on PUA claims. 

The department is continuing to work with private technology firms to make the PUA process less manual, Gerstenfeld said.  

And the department is also working on adding on more phone lines. It recently added 138 new phone lines and plans on adding another 150 in the coming weeks, Gerstenfeld said.

He said the department intends to hire and dedicate at least 60 people to the PUA work.  

“We know that people are still getting busy signals and are still waiting on hold, which is why we’re continuing to add more phone lines and people to answer questions,” Gerstenfeld said.  

The Oregon Employment Department will also be hosting webinars with information about PUA claims in the future, he said.  

Gerstenfeld said the department will be posting more details in the next few days about its plan for processing PUA benefits. But, he said, the department cannot report an absolute date for when any particular claim will be processed.  

“What we’ve learned so far will let us get people their benefits more quickly, but unfortunately it will still take some time,” 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.