The director of the Oregon Employment Department has been replaced, Governor Kate Brown announced Sunday, as the beleaguered agency has struggled to process the avalanche of new jobless claims stemming from the coronavirus economic crisis.
The move comes just days after Director Kay Erickson announced “Project Focus 100,” a new plan aimed at addressing the department’s backlog of 38,000 claims — some of which have gone unanswered eight weeks or more.
Also still waiting are the more than 100,000 applications for the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which is for self-employed, contract, gig and other workers not eligible for regular unemployment benefits, according to House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, who met with Erickson recently to discuss her concerns.
All parties appear to be in agreement that the challenges facing the OED are unprecedented. The state’s economy lost more than 266,000 jobs in the first two months of the coronavirus pandemic, while the unemployment rate skyrocketed from a near-record-low 3.5 percent in March to a record-high 14.2 percent in April.
It was the state’s highest unemployment rate on record (and is expected to continue to rise), as well as the largest month-over-month increase in state history, going back almost 50 years (comparable data are available back to 1976).
And yet, the “continued delays in delivering unemployment insurance benefits to thousands of out-of-work Oregonians are unacceptable,” according to Governor Brown.
“This is an unprecedented crisis, and the problems at the department demand an urgent response,” Governor Brown said in the May 31 statement announcing she had requested and received Erickson’s resignation, effective immediately.
“I’d like to thank Director Erickson for her years of service to the State of Oregon,” she said, “but it is clear that new leadership is needed.”
She will be replaced David Gerstenfeld, director of the state’s Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance Division since September 2019, on an interim basis.
The governor said she has directed the agency to address the current backlog in unpaid claims, and to “clearly communicate the status of any unpaid claims to Oregonians.”
“In these incredibly stressful times, Oregon families are counting on these benefits,” she said. “We will make this right. Oregonians will receive the benefits that they are owed.”
Prior to his current role, Gerstenfeld had served as Unemployment Insurance Division Director since 2011. He has worked for the State of Oregon since 1997, and received a law degree from Lewis and Clark.
On Saturday, following a hearing by the House Committee on Business and Labor, two Republican members released a statement that laid some measure of the blame for the OED’s failings at the governor’s feet.
Rep. Daniel Bonham, of The Dalles, said the record unemployment rates were the direct result of her executive orders, and implied she had not prioritized support for the OED in the way she should have.
“We need swift action, not excuses. Oregon’s unemployed workers deserve access to the benefits they have earned,” he said. “The money is there, it’s time to get these workers paid.”
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