Woes continue for the beleaguered Oregon Employment Department, as Democratic leader in the state Legislature this week proposed a measure that would bring temporary relief to the thousands of Oregonians still waiting for their jobless claims to be processed.
House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney have proposed the immediate distribution of $500 emergency relief checks to the nearly 70,000 people who have applied for unemployment but have yet to receive benefits from the state.
The measure, which would cost an estimated $35 million, would be funded by federal CARES Act dollars allocated to the state of Oregon.
“People need help now,” Speaker Kotek said. “While the department works on processing all the claims, we can make sure desperate Oregonians get some direct cash assistance as soon as possible.”
Senate President Courtney admitted the proposal would provide only temporary and limited help.
“This isn’t a fix; this is a band-aid,” he said, but adding: “We need to get cash into the hands of Oregonians who have been waiting on their benefits for months. As the department continues to clear claims, this money will help those who are still waiting.”
For those who may be curious about how a state government that has struggled for months to process the jobless claims of more than 60,000 Oregonians would be able to identify, vet and provide checks to those same people, legislative leaders have called for a simple application process to be established through a separate agency — the Department of Administrative Services.
Individuals who have filed for, but not yet received, benefits from either the Unemployment Insurance program or the Pandemic Assistance Unemployment program would be eligible for those one-time payments, which would not affect their future benefits, Democratic leaders said.
The delays at the Oregon Employment Department are the result of the historically unprecedented number of claims filed since the start of the pandemic — during which more than 240,000 Oregonians lost their jobs — the mandate to quickly implement new federal programs, and the constraints of an ancient and outdated computer system.
The agency’s beleaguered director, Kay Erickson, was ousted in May, and while her successor, David Gerstenfeld, has has sought to increase communication with claimants, journalists and lawmakers, he has encountered no lesser challenges in processing claims for thousands of Oregonians — some of whom have been waiting for relief since March.
On top of it all, OED is now facing a lawsuit for allegedly violating state and federal law in its administration of unemployment benefits during the coronavirus crisis. As OPB News reports, the plaintiffs include a seasonal worker, Lyft driver, a legal refugee from Myanmar and two survivors of domestic violence.
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