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Oregon Employment Department Faces Class Action Lawsuit

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.

The agency faces a class action lawsuit over lengthy delays in delivering unemployment benefits

A lawsuit that began with 13 Oregonians struggling to get unemployment benefits has expanded to potentially cover tens of thousands of people.

That leaves the Oregon Employment Department facing a class action lawsuit over lengthy delays in how it administered benefits during the pandemic.

Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Judith Matarazzo certified the class in a three-minute hearing Friday. The class consists of anyone waiting four weeks or longer to receive funds since applying or attempting to apply for unemployment benefits, including the federal benefits known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA.

Lawyers at the hearing did not say how many Oregonians have been waiting that long or are expected to, but it is likely tens of thousands of people. At his most recent weekly press briefing, acting agency director David Gerstenfeld said more than 45,000 people still have claims requiring adjudication. Adjudication is a months-long process for reviewing issues with claims after initial processing.

The adjudication figure does not take into account people who are still waiting for other reasons. According to the agency, it has received more than 56,000 PUA claims that it has yet to process or even enter into its system. The average age of those claims is unclear.

An OPB analysis of federal data showed that in August more than 60% of Oregonians who began receiving regular unemployment benefits had waited more than 10 weeks. In September, the percentage of newly-paid people who had waited that long dipped slightly – to 57%.

In the end, the agency’s lawyers withdrew their opposition to the motion for class certification filed by attorneys with the Oregon Law Center. They have, however, argued the original claims are moot. That’s because the employment department “acted on” petitioners' claims after being sued.

Now, even petitioners who have been paid serve as representatives of a much larger class. The goal of the lawsuit is a court order compelling the employment department to act promptly on applications for unemployment benefits.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Kate Davidson is OPB’s business and economics reporter. Before moving to Oregon, she was a regular contributor to "Marketplace", a reporter at Michigan Radio focused on economic change in the industrial Midwest and a producer at NPR.