FROM STATE REP. ROB NOSSE:
How the unemployment system is affected by COVID-19
Since mid-April, about 170,000 Oregonians have filed unemployment claims. During the week of March 15 alone, over 76,000 claims were filed, a number roughly four times greater than the highest weekly rate during the 2008 recession. In one week, Oregon went from the lowest weekly number of unemployment claims in its history to the highest. Unfortunately, the unemployment system was not designed to handle so many claims coming in at once, and it is overloaded. A frequent concern I have heard from people in my district is that they are having trouble getting through to the Oregon Employment Department on their hotline. Hold times are sometimes hours long and some have experienced dropped calls or heard nothing but a busy signal.
To respond to this surge in demand, the unemployment office has doubled the number of claims handlers and is on track to tripling it as they continue to add more people to process claims. The goal is to eventually be able to handle as many claims in one day as they used to handle in one month. They are adding more workspaces and shifts – including a Saturday shift – to create a safe work environment that allows for social distancing. New phones and phone circuits are being added, and multilingual staff are being hired to help those whose first language is Vietnamese, Russian, or Spanish. Video guides will also be translated into those languages and posted on the Oregon Employment Department’s YouTube channel. The cost of the expansion in claims handling capacity is being paid for by the recently passed CARES Act. Please know your frustrations are being addressed and that this will get better.
Filing a claim for unemployment insurance
Before you file a claim, please read the Oregon Employment Department’s new Frequently Asked Questions. These two YouTube videos they put together with updates on the new unemployment benefits system and also a guide on how to file a claim are helpful as well. Start your claim as soon as you can. If at all possible, file the claim online. This will help the unemployment office more quickly handle claims as phone lines are still full.
The Oregon Employment Department is asking elected officials to get the word out about a few key issues with the claims process. After you file, a claims handler will contact you to complete the process. You do not need to call the hotline to ask about the status of your claim. If you have a specific question or concern about your claim, you can email the department at [email protected]. If the question is about the status of your claim, please know that they will contact you to complete the process.
If you received a confirmation number, it means the OED got the claim. It is taking them longer than normal to contact people, and you might even find that when you go to make your weekly claim on the second week, they haven’t processed the first one yet. If that happens, you could get a notice that it’s not a valid claim, which would understandably cause some worry. What I have heard is that you can still keep filing claims online and that you don’t need to call in for that. The department has your claim – even the error message one – and they’re just catching up.
I know that these frustrations are adding to the stress that everyone is already feeling right now. It’s important to remember that the department staff are dealing with an unprecedented workload and are doing their best to expand capacity and get everyone their benefits as soon as possible.
Eligibility for unemployment benefits
If you know you were not previously eligible for unemployment and are seeking benefits as a self-employed person or an independent contractor under the new federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, the agency is advising you to wait to file a claim since this filing process could change and disrupt your claim. Once the Oregon Employment Department gets guidance from the federal government on how to implement the application process for the new pandemic benefits, they will publicize that information and applications will be able to be backdated. If you fall in this category and have already filed a claim, the agency will let you know if you become eligible for the new program when they screen your application.
If you have expiring benefits from a previously filed unemployment claim, the CARES Act will cover an additional 13 week of benefits.
The CARES Act’s unemployment provisions
The Oregon Employment Department is working closely with federal partners to implement the changes in the CARES Act as soon as possible. The new law expands who is eligible to receive unemployment benefit, increases the weekly benefit value by $600 per week through July 31, 2020, which amounts to 100% of lost wages for the average worker. The new program also extends the maximum amount of time unemployment insurance is available from 26 to 39 weeks. Like regular unemployment benefits, the additional $600 per week will be taxable, but it will not be considered when determining eligibility for the Oregon Health Plan (Medicaid) or CHIP.
Work Share Program
The CARES Act also provides 100% federal funding for Oregon’s Work Share Program. Through the program, instead of laying off staff, an employer can reduce employee hours and have unemployment benefits supplement workers’ wages—allowing employees to earn their full paycheck even on reduced hours.
Other employment issues
The Bureau of Labor and Industry has a summary of other employment laws that may affect workers in regards to COVID-19, such as sick leave, family leave, or when you are due your last paycheck. If you have an employment issue, you can reach out to the agency by calling (971) 673-0761 or email [email protected].
Resources for unemployed workers
- Unemployment Insurance: The Oregon Employment Department provides Unemployment Insurance benefits to most workers who are out of work through no fault of their own. To file an initial Unemployment Insurance claim, visit the Oregon Employment Department’s Online Claim System and follow instructions to file your new claim.
- Also available in Spanish.
- Visit the FAQs section on the link below for information on recent federal action to expand Unemployment Insurance.
- Supplemental Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation: The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides a temporary Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation benefit of $600 a week for any worker eligible for state or federal Unemployment Compensation benefits. This $600 a week Unemployment Compensation is paid in addition to and at the same time (but not necessarily in the same check) as regular state Unemployment Compensation benefits; if you’ve already applied for Unemployment, you do not need to reapply for the additional compensation. This additional payment does not affect eligibility for Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program and is only available through July 31, 2020.
- Expanded Unemployment Eligibility and Assistance: The CARES Act permits states to expand eligibility to provide Unemployment Compensation to workers who are not normally eligible for benefits, so long as their unemployment was connected to the COVID-19 pandemic. Expanded eligibility would provide benefits to self-employed individuals, independent contractors, “gig economy” workers, and individuals who were unable to start a new job or contract due to the pandemic. Individuals should apply for these temporary new federal benefits through the Oregon Employment Department’s Online Claim System. States are also permitted to provide an additional 13 weeks of unemployment benefits to workers who need beyond what is provided for in state and federal law. This equates up to 39 weeks of unemployment benefits in total.
- Current Unemployment Insurance in-person meeting requirements: If you are sick with COVID-19, call your WorkSource Oregon center to ask about alternative options for completing your appointments.
Find out more and FAQs on Congressman Earl Blumenauer’s website.