SALEM, Ore. — On Wednesday, Democrats in the Oregon House urged the state's Employment Department to address the backlog of unpaid unemployment claims that have been building since mass lay-offs began in mid-March.
“Bold action, that also protects the health and safety of agency staff, is needed from the leadership at the Employment Department, now more than ever," said House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, in a statement. "We are in unprecedented times — relying on the old ways of doing things will only lead to further delays for vulnerable families."
Warner acknowledged that workers at the Oregon Employment Department (OED) have worked hard to process the influx of new unemployment claims "under trying, stressful conditions." But she said that many Oregonians have continued to wait for their benefits despite countless hours on clogged phone lines and unaddressed emails.
In its latest update, OED reported that 83 percent of initial claims submitted between March 15 and May 2 had been processed, and the agency had been processing more claims than it received for at least four weeks. Nonetheless, some Oregonians have continued to report having not received any payments from the agency despite having filed weeks or months ago.
"We are hearing each day from our neighbors who are fed up and scared about the road forward," said Warner. "Despite having filed a claim months ago, [they] have not received the payments they are due. It is beyond time for these claims to be met with action."
Warner said that OED could help prevent further delays by enacting reforms, including allowing some staff to work remotely so that more workers are available to answer calls and emails during normal business hours. She also suggested "safely" bringing in retired OED staff to handle the most complicated and time-consuming cases.
“Oregonians are struggling — they need action and they need it now,” Warner said.
OED has received more than 381,000 initial claims since the business closures and lay-offs began in March. At last report, it had 635 employees working on claims, and was still working to hire more.