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As 38,000 Oregonians wait for jobless benefits, state launches push to clear backlog

(Update: Adding video, comments from economist, local residents)

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- Although many Central Oregon businesses have already reopened under Phase 1 of Gov. Kate Brown's reopening plan, many who lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic are still waiting on their unemployment benefits.

It's a problem seen to varying degrees in many states around the country.

On Monday, the Oregon Employment Department, amid growing pressure, launched a new multi-faceted effort, "Project Focus 100," to clear the 38,000-claim backlog.

Damon Runberg, the agency's regional economist, told NewsChannel 21 part of the project's goal is to improve service by modernizing the technology and database software used to process claims.

He said the software was meant to be updated earlier this year, but the update came too late for the COVID-19 crisis.

“The technology is another variable, and the volume of the people calling in," Runberg said. "I think if this system was modernized sooner, before this crisis happened, there’d be a lot less people calling in in the first place.”

Runberg said 91 percent of all claims filed since March 15 have been processed. He said the other 9 percent of claims may be taking longer to process due to their complexity.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports Oregon’s unemployment rate jumped to 14.2% last month, the highest on record. In March, it was just 3.5%.

New BLS figures show Deschutes County lost about 16% of its jobs in April alone, a drop of more than 14,000 positions in just a month.

Josh Behrens, who lives in Bend, said he called the Employment Department more than 30 times in one day and never got to speak with a representative. Two months after he lost his job, he said he is still waiting for answers regarding filing for unemployment.

"They just keep saying it's denied, and I dont understand it," Behrens said. "I've been working here, I paid my taxes, made 'X' amount of money and I've lived and worked in Oregon for 'X' amount of time.”

He said he still files weekly claims, and is not giving up just yet.

Behrens moved to Oregon from California last September. On Tuesday, he received a letter in the mail from the California Employment Development Department, asking him to pay back the week's worth of unemployment they had given him.

Shelleigh Williams of Bend is also still waiting to get in contact with a state employment representative.

Earlier this year, she was hired by a vodka distillery in Baker City to conduct tastings in Bend. Then, the COVID-19 crisis hit.

Williams said she has filed for unemployment before, but it has never been as frustrating as it is now. She said she's mostly concerned about being put on hold on the phone for nearly three hours and still not being able to get through.

"You fill forms out, but where are they going?" Williams said. "How come no one is getting back to me, so I'll know if I have to keep filling it out every week? Because I am."

Like Behrens, she said she will keep trying to reach the department until she gets answers (or benefits).

"It's the state of Oregon, and they do what they say," Williams said. "It might take a while, but I've never had to wait this long. Never."

Here's a statement issued Monday by Employment Department Director Kay Erickson about the renewed effort to catch up:

"Oregon is facing unprecedented unemployment, and hundreds of thousands of Oregon families are counting on unemployment benefits to pay for their basic needs. While the Oregon Employment Department has paid a record number of Oregonians within two to three weeks, for too many Oregonians, their claims are in a backlog.

"We know how frustrating it has been for those who are trying to reach us about the status of their claims and have been unable to get through. That is why we are launching Project Focus 100.

"The goal is straightforward: to process 100 percent of the 38,000 claim backlog as quickly as possible and get Oregonians the relief they need. We will use four successful strategies:

  1. Continue surge hiring. The department has made good progress getting the staff we need to process claims quickly, increasing by six times the number of people processing claims than were in place before COVID-19 closures began. We continue hiring and training new employees to ensure every Oregonian gets the benefits they’re owed in a timely fashion.
  2. Further focus our experienced professionals on the oldest and most complex claims. For two weeks, from May 29 to June 12, we will increase our outbound calls to resolve claims for those that have been waiting the longest. To do this, our most experienced employees will take time away from answering the phones. We will also temporarily reassign job center employees to take incoming calls to help resolve questions, in all languages, relating to:
    • Address/Phone number changes
    • Looking up customer ID (CID) numbers
    • Re-setting PIN numbers
    • Issues with claiming a week of benefits online, including taking weekly certifications
    • Filing a new claim or processing an internet initial claim (except those with military, federal, or out-of-state wages)
    • Re-starting a claim
    • Checking the status of a claim (if unable to use the online claim system)
  3. Increase proactive contact and communication. We’re piloting new ways of contacting Oregonians to let them know where their claims are in the system and to solve problems. We now have pre-recorded phone messages and emails will confirm that we’ve received your PUA claim. We’re also working to add a customer service chat bot to our website.
  4. Use technology to close gaps and improve service. We have identified strategies that move claims out of processing traps that can hang them up. That has already moved thousands of claims through processing. We will continue using these strategies to speed up processing and get Oregonians whose claims have been stuck the benefits they’re owed.

"We continue to add new metrics to our online dashboard so that Oregonians can watch our progress. We’ll continue to be transparent about where we are and our progress toward our goals. Navigating this crisis is a collective effort, and Oregonians know how to work together to overcome hard challenges. We’ll get through this together," Erickson wrote.

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Rhea Panela

Rhea Panela is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Rhea here.

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