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Politics & Government

Oregonians Who Lost Jobs In Wildfire Can Seek Disaster Assistance

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David Hess

The White House’s disaster declaration for Oregon opens up a new stream of unemployment assistance.

Among the resources that the White House’s disaster declaration offers to Oregon is a new funding stream to benefit people whose jobs went up in flames from the wildfires still burning in parts of the state. The Oregon Employment Department announced Wednesday that people who’ve become unemployed as a result of the state’s catastrophic wildfires will soon get support from Disaster Unemployment Assistance.

Now with so many programs — regular Unemployment Insurance, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, Extended Benefits, as well as Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation — OED director David Gerstenfeld acknowledged it can be hard for out-of-work Oregonians to know which program they’ll fall under. Gerstenfeld said OED intends to ensure people who need help will be connected to the program they’re eligible for.

“If they are able to qualify for regular unemployment, then we are required to pay them under that program,” Gerstenfeld said.

Claims that are complicated, or otherwise raise initial flags often end up in what’s called “adjudication” where they’re investigated, sometimes holding up payment for months. It can also be difficult for people to even know what category they’re in if their job situation is being affected by both the pandemic and wildfires, for instance.

“We have the extra complication right now, where a lot of people that normally wouldn’t be able to get regular unemployment are already receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits. So if people are unemployed because of COVID-19 ... they will likely continue to receive benefits under that program,” Gerstenfeld said.

OED has posted a Frequently Asked Questions page to its web site, in part to answer questions from people who were already unemployed, but may have lost important documents — or even their entire home — as wildfires forced evacuations and destroyed property.

Gerstenfeld said his agency is working as quickly as possible to make the Disaster Unemployment Assistance, or DUA, funds available.

“DUA is really one more safety net for the people who aren’t eligible for any of those programs … It’s hard to give one list of criteria for what program people might be in,” Gerstenfeld said.

DUA is not exactly a “new program.” It’s been available for many years for states experiencing disasters, and its structure was the model for the PUA program, for people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic but don’t qualify for regular unemployment.

OED is working on several new initiatives even as it’s trying to resolve a hefty backlog of claims and stand up a relief program for wildfire survivors.

Gerstenfeld offered a bit of good news on that front. His agency is in negotiations with a vendor to carry out a long-planned upgrade to its claims systems. OED’s current system has been in place for decades and has been identified as a factor in the agency’s difficulty in quickly resolving claims over the spring and summer.

While the agency has been soundly criticized for moving too slowly, Gerstenfeld said his technology staff appears to be ahead of schedule with one of its tasks. OED was pressed by legislators recently to implement Senate Bill 1701, a law they passed in a special session this year to allow people to earn more money without losing unemployment benefits. Gerstenfeld said that IT workers had a chance to make headway on SB 1701 in their downtime while implementing yet another program — the federal Lost Wages Assistance program. Gerstenfeld that the program, which offers an additional $300 of unemployment benefits to eligible people, is on schedule to start delivering benefits by the end of the month.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting