SALEM, Ore. — Oregon's newly-appointed interim director of the Employment Department delivered a status report Wednesday on the agency's effort to address thousands of backlogged claims, indicating significant progress in processing those cases.
David Gerstenfeld became acting director of the Oregon Employment Department (OED) last week after Governor Kate Brown ousted erstwhile director Kay Erickson. As a result, he inherited some 38,000 backlogged unemployment claims that had yet to be processed.
While Erickson was still director in May, and after public exhortations from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, OED announced an initiative called "Project Focus 100" — a push to process every one of those claims, some of which have been languishing since March.
On a video briefing Wednesday, Gerstenfeld described tangible progress on the initiative. According to him, 97 percent of total claims have now been processed, including 85 percent of those backlogged claims.
Gerstenfeld said that 5,800 claims remain unprocessed from the backlog. In total, 13,000 claims have not been processed, a number that the most recent claims filed this week.
The good news, Gerstenfeld said, is that even the 13,000 total claims represent less that the agency is now able to process in a given week.
Strides made in the last several weeks have come from a combination of sources. OED shifted its most experienced staff to handling the backlogged claims, many of which represent more complicated cases. At the same time, about 150 staff from Oregon's legislative and executive branches — in addition to National Guard members — have volunteered their time handling phones for the agency, even as it continues to add more phone lines.
Gerstenfeld said that OED has paid out roughly $1.5 billion in total benefits since the coronavirus crisis began. Most of those funds have been for "regular" claims. A much smaller portion, $69 million, has so far gone toward workers eligible for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which was created through the CARES Act to get benefits to the self-employed, contractors, and gig workers.
Implementing the PUA program has been a struggle, Gerstenfeld admitted. He said the agency is still working to shift more resources toward PUA this week and going forward.