SALEM — Michelle Stacy Rademacher started her own business last year selling crystals, custom jewelry and home goods. She wanted the flexibility to make her own schedule to be available to support her husband, Lars, who had been diagnosed with cancer for the third time.
She had hoped her sales this year would allow her to begin replenishing her family’s savings, which were wiped out by the cancer treatments. Instead, the festivals and shows she relied on for business were canceled in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, leaving her without any income to pay her bills.
Rademacher, 50, thought she had a lifeline in March when the federal government expanded unemployment insurance to include self-employed individuals, contract workers and others who didn’t qualify for regular unemployment. When Oregon began accepting claims for the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program in April, Rademacher applied immediately.
But eight weeks later, she has yet to receive a single payment. The Portland resident estimates the state owes her at least $7,000.
“We’ve learned to become resourceful, but this is definitely testing my limits,” Rademacher said. “I have the potential to lose everything I’ve ever worked for.”
The Oregon Employment Department disclosed last week that it had accumulated a backlog of more than 70,000 unprocessed Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) claims, for the first time providing data to illustrate the crisis facing tens of thousands of Oregonians who have gone without income during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
The department announced last week that it was launching a new initiative, FOCUS PUA, to shift resources and staff toward addressing the massive backlog of unprocessed PUA claims.
Oregon estimates that it will be able to process 5,000 claims in the first week of the program and that its weekly processing numbers will grow by 2,500 per week thereafter, enabling the state to overcome the current backlog of PUA claims within six or seven weeks. The department is also simultaneously working with Google to create a new web-based PUA application system that it hopes to roll out in the first half of July to address many of the issues that have led to the current PUA backlog.
“That would have us being caught up that week of August 8, assuming that we don’t see a big increase in the number of new claims being filed as we’re going forward,” said David Gerstenfeld, interim director of the Oregon Employment Department. “We are still receiving new PUA applications, but the rate as of now has slowed down quite a bit.”
Waiting on relief
But Oregonians who have been waiting months for their claims to be processed remain skeptical that the state will be able to quickly fix the issues that have plagued the PUA program.
Oregon didn’t open its PUA application process until late April, a month after the federal government expanded unemployment insurance to include self-employed individuals. Amy Bean, who was forced to close her Portland massage therapy practice in March, filed a PUA claim immediately after the application went live but hasn’t heard anything from the employment department since, even though she has continued to file weekly claims.
Her family has been able to pay bills and buy necessities with her husband’s income over the last three months, but she was still forced to ask the landlord of her office building for rent relief. This month, Bean and her husband, who lease their home from their in-laws, were unable to pay the rent on their house for the first time.
Bean has now been rushing to secure the personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies necessary to reopen her business, even though she has asthma and remains concerned about her safety amid the pandemic.
“I need an income,” Bean said. “And I don’t know if I’ll ever get money from the state or PUA.”
Getting in touch with the employment department has been a challenge for claimants like Bean. The department didn’t have a phone number for PUA claimants until earlier this month.
It says it has been steadily adding phone lines, but that callers are still waiting an average of 72 minutes on hold to speak to a representative.
That doesn’t account for the hours claimants are forced to spend repeatedly calling the department simply to be placed on hold. On Tuesday, the employment department had to reboot its phone system due to a technical error, dropping the calls of every person on hold.
Cameron Phillips, a Myrtle Creek resident who lost his job as a construction worker due to the pandemic, filed for PUA in May. But every time he tries to log into his account on the department’s website, he receives an error message saying that he doesn’t have a current claim.
Phillips has been calling the PUA helpline regularly to try to get the mistake fixed, but said he is usually met with a busy signal. He has to dial and redial the line hundreds of times before being placed on hold, and then wait another two to three hours to speak to a representative.
“Every time you go to call them, you are going to have to try to connect 400 to 500 times,” Phillips said. “They’ve done an extremely poor job.”
The phone lines have been tied up in part because some PUA claimants resorted to calling in their weekly claims when payments unexpectedly stopped.
Gerstenfeld said that the department’s current system requires weekly PUA certifications to be processed manually and the department hasn’t been able to keep up. He said he doesn’t know how many claimants have had their payments paused due to that backlog.
“Each weekly claim that is filed requires some work by our employees in order to get the payment issued,” Gerstenfeld said. “As we’ve been processing more of those initial claims that means more and more weekly claims also have to be processed in order to make sure the payments go out without any pause.”
Gerstenfeld said that weekly claims should be submitted online when possible. He urged those whose initial claims have been processed not to call in if they don’t receive weekly payments on time, in order to open up the phone lines for Oregonians who must speak to a representative to have their initial claim processed.
That may be a tall order for Oregonians who are waiting on much-needed payments.
Linda Cohen, who runs a small preschool in Ashland, has been unemployed since the state shut down schools in March. She started receiving PUA payments in May, but the payments stopped on May 30. She has written letters, sent emails and made phone calls to the department, but hasn’t heard from anyone that can address her claim.
“It’s been very frustrating,” Cohen said. “It’s been very exhausting.”
Improving the claim process
Oregon received 495,600 regular unemployment claims over a three-month period from March through June, on top of 97,000 PUA claims. The state received just 37,400 claims during the same time last year.
Its backlog of unprocessed regular unemployment claims ballooned to over 100,000 in April under former employment department Director Kay Erickson. Gov. Kate Brown fired Erickson at the end of May as the department struggled to cope with the enormous backlog and communicate with jobless Oregonians.
The employment department has focused on addressing the backlog over the last month and now says it has just 1,358 unprocessed regular unemployment claims. But the department has continued to struggle with the PUA program, which requires employees to learn an entirely different claims process.
It hasn’t helped that the state is using an antiquated computer system, with components that date to the Reagan administration. Oregon received federal money to modernize its technology back in 2009, but the overhaul didn’t get off the ground until the past few years.
The state has been working with Google to create a new web-based PUA application for both initial and weekly claims in response to complaints that it has received about the application process. Gerstenfeld said the process for approving ongoing weekly claims will be automated under the new system, which should prevent the department from accumulating backlogs of weekly claims.
Gerstenfeld said the department decided to roll out the current system in April, even as it began working with Google to create a better PUA system, because it wanted to start paying benefits to PUA applicants as quickly as possible. The department knew there would be hiccups, he said, but didn’t anticipate many of the challenges.
“The goal is that it will be easier for people to file,” Gerstenfeld said. “We’ve heard feedback and understand that there are challenges with our current filing process, which we frankly knew up front, but that’s what we were able to get done in order to prioritize being able to start making payments so quickly after the law was passed.”
The department has paid $90 million in PUA benefits to date, but the convoluted application process has created frustration for many claimants. Under the current system, claimants can mistakenly upload blank applications if they don’t save the applications to their computer before filling them out.
The system is also currently set up to pay out the minimum amount of $205 per week to claimants once their application is processed. Many claimants are entitled to much more.
Department employees have to manually review applications and make adjustments to the payment amount, which has led to delays. Gerstenfeld said the department has been aggressively hiring and brought on 60 new staff members this week to address the backlog of initial and weekly PUA claims, as well as make adjustments to payment amounts. He hopes that the majority of payment amounts will be adjusted by next week.
“I would extend my sincerest apologies and I know that doesn’t help them,” Gerstenfeld said. “I hear every day from people who aren’t able to buy food, they aren’t able to do all the basic things that they need to. That’s why we’re working so hard. … We are committed to doing everything that we can to get those benefits out as quickly as possible.”