The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the weaknesses in many of Oregon’s systems that, as lawmakers, my colleagues and I expected to provide critical support for Oregonians in this time of need. The scope of the crisis we’re confronting has made it overwhelmingly clear that some of these systems need a major overhaul, specifically the state’s unemployment program.
Since March, my office has worked to get answers about the massive backlog in unemployment payments at the Oregon Employment Department (OED). The now-former head of that agency testified before a legislative committee in May, reporting that nearly 200,000 Oregonians who had filed for unemployment assistance were still waiting to receive their benefits. More recently, the new leader of OED has reported to legislators that about 60,000 applicants to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program have still not received a single check. These delays are unacceptable.
My office has been hounding our OED contacts for updates on the status of my constituents’ claims and trying desperately to get someone from the agency to reach out to unemployed workers who are still waiting. My staff fields daily calls and emails from out-of-work Oregonians who still haven’t received a single check after months of waiting. I regularly remind OED that their delays have left dozens if not hundreds of families in my community in a desperate financial situation.
I’m grateful that the Oregon Legislature’s Emergency Board has passed a one-time, $500 stimulus payment that will be made available to every applicant who has yet to receive an unemployment check. Yet, this is clearly not a long-term solution, and it will not be enough to help the tens of thousands in our state still wondering how they will afford food, rent, or basic necessities. These $500 checks are like a band-aid on a broken arm. In addition to this stop-gap measure, we need broad, systemic change in how we’re connecting people with the benefits they have earned.
The outdated system Oregonians must use to file for unemployment benefits, though it was technologically advanced when it was put into place decades ago, is broken and must be fixed. Modern unemployment systems are versatile, and ensure it is easy to get information from applicants. In Oregon, the Unemployment office mails paper forms or calls applicants on the telephone to gather necessary information to process a claim. As a result, even though OED has added hundreds of employees and phone lines to its call centers, most callers are still met with constant busy signals. I have talked to several people who have spent hundreds of hours, dialing the OED phone number they were told to call, trying to get through to the only to be met with a constant busy signal from the other end of the line. Thousands of Oregonians have joined informal “unemployment support groups” on social media, expressing their frustrations and also sharing tips on how to navigate the system. They deserve a better system to navigate.
The new OED Director has acknowledged that his agency’s technology is too old to efficiently process the surge in claims we’ve seen. The system is so overwhelmed that OED can’t even provide accurate data on the number of people who are still waiting for their checks. What’s more, the OED employees charged with helping unemployment applicants navigate this system are at constant risk of contracting the coronavirus, because they are not able to work from home. There have already been outbreaks at call centers, and social distancing requirements are further limiting OED’s capacity to field calls and the speed with which they can process claims. These are serious weaknesses that increase the risk to our entire state’s economy during this public health crisis. When people can’t get the unemployment benefits they are owed, and the system can’t even quantify the scope of the problem or respond to challenges as they emerge, we all suffer the ripple effects. We must do better for the people of Oregon.
I am working with my colleagues in the legislature to take decisive action that will remake our unemployment system so it works when people need it most. In the short term, I am joining my colleagues in calling for an audit of OED’s response to this crisis, and pushing OED leadership to expand and hasten their plan for OED employees to work from home, following outbreaks that have occurred in call centers. They have begun a pilot for telework, but personally I feel they should skip it and implement much more robust work-from-home infrastructure to keep staff safe and improve response times from the department. In the longer term, we need a clear timeline for when the OED computer systems can be upgraded, because continuing the upgrades in the middle of the pandemic will unfortunately only cause further delays.
The way to ensure a strong economic recovery from this pandemic is to support the hard-working people who power our state: Oregon’s workforce. Fixing the broken unemployment system is only a start. We also need policies that will expand health care access, provide affordable housing, lower the cost of child care, and ensure that students can thrive in schools. Putting $500 in the pockets of unemployment applicants is just the first step in what I hope will be a robust list of policy changes that help Oregon emerge from the pandemic as a more resilient state than we have been before.
This crisis has shown us the importance of investing proactively in the people who keep our economy moving. Had the state built stronger systems and governed less reactively over the last several decades, we may be in a very different position today. As we reexamine and rebuild the systems they gave us, we need to lay a strong foundation that will stand up to future crises, and help working Oregonian families thrive.
Democrat Anna Williams of Hood River represents House District 52.