SALEM — Oregon’s widespread wildfires will add to the already heavy workloads of the state Employment Department.

But even as some employees cope with the after-effects of the fires and evacuations — and offices resume operations and are cleared of smoke — the acting director says the agency is taking on more tasks in addition to the workloads generated by the business shutdowns resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

“On top of our existing economic troubles, the added disasters from the fires are incredibly painful for so many people,” David Gerstenfeld said Wednesday, Sept. 16. “We are here as a resource and we will continue to be one through this difficult time.”

Some offices, including a processing center in Wilsonville, closed temporarily due to wildfire smoke. Gerstenfeld said all offices have reopened, and most are operating with HEPA filters that remove smoke particles from the air.

Gerstenfeld spoke about two specific actions during a weekly conference call with reporters.

“We are going through the claims, we have to identify people we know are from the areas most heavily impacted by the fires, so that we can prioritize the work on their claims,” he said.

Despite a record 566,100 claims for regular unemployment benefits filed statewide in the past six months — about eight times the 71,000 claims filed for a comparable period in 2019 — Gerstenfeld said only about 1,100 were pending, most of them filed in the past few days. Those claims are paid from a state trust fund into which employers pay taxes.

The agency is still working through adjudication of more complex claims that self-employed and gig workers have filed for under the CARES Act, which made these workers eligible for unemployment benefits for the first time. About 54,000 people are being paid federal benefits under Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, but others are still awaiting payments.

Special aid available

Gerstenfeld said some laid-off workers who do not qualify for these programs may qualify for Disaster Unemployment Assistance payments as a result of a major-disaster declaration issued Sept. 15 by President Donald Trump.

Under that declaration, people in eight counties — including Clackamas, Marion and Linn counties — now qualify for individual assistance, including that program, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Those three counties were swept by the Riverside and Beachie Creek fires.

“It is one more safety net for the people who are not eligible for any of the other programs,” Gerstenfeld said.

“If somebody cannot work right now or is working less because of the fires, they should file for benefits. If they can get regular benefits, we are required to pay them under that program.”

The declaration also made 20 counties — 15 of them west of the Cascades, except Clatsop, Curry and Polk — eligible for federal aid for public works repairs and temporary shelters in the aftermath of the fires. For every $3 in aid put up by FEMA, state and local governments must put up $1. This aid does not flow through the Employment Department.

Gerstenfeld said details of the Disaster Unemployment Assistance program will be available on the website.

“We are already working to get these benefits ready to be paid as quickly as possible,” he said. “This is a program only rarely used. We anticipate being able to make these payments to people as early as next week.”

Other updates

Gerstenfeld also offered updates on two other benefit programs.

He said that starting this week, the agency’s computer mainframe system will be able to account for workers earning a maximum of $300 per week before their unemployment benefits are reduced. That change came about in Senate Bill 1701, proposed at the suggestion of Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle and passed by the Legislature on Aug. 10.

Calculations are retroactive to Sept. 6, the first full week after Gov. Kate Brown signed the bill on Sept. 1.

Gerstenfeld said the original target for implementation was mid-December. He said people receiving benefits do not need to take further action.

He also said he anticipates supplemental benefit payments of $300 per week for six weeks — from July 26 through Sept. 5 — will start at the end of September as previously announced. The federal money comes from FEMA under the Lost Wages Assistance program, which follows up supplemental payments of $600 per week under the CARES Act, but that stopped at the end of July.

Trump signed an executive order Aug. 7 drawing $44 billion from a FEMA reserve for disaster aid.

For most people receiving unemployment benefits now, they will have to self-certify on the Employment Department’s online claims page that their job status remains unchanged as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. This requirement does not apply to self-employed and gig workers who already have filed for federal benefits under Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

Deadlock continues

Congress has been deadlocked on future supplemental unemployment benefits. The Democratic-led House passed a coronavirus aid plan May 15 to continue the $600-per-week payments through the end of the year. The Republican majority in the Senate proposed a plan, which failed to advance in a procedural vote Sept. 10, to cut supplemental payments to $300 per week, then tie them to 70% of a laid-off worker’s wages.

A bipartisan group of 50 House members, including Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon, proposed their own plan. It calls for payments of $450 per week for eight weeks starting in mid-October, then $600 per week — but no more than a worker’s pre-pandemic wages — through mid-January. Their plan came in at $1.5 trillion, between the Senate GOP plan of $500 billion and a reduced Democratic offer of $2 trillion.

Oregon's official unemployment rate dropped to 7.7% in August from 10.4% the previous month. It is down from a modern record 14.2% in April, but still more than double the 3.5% in March as the pandemic started.

Gerstenfeld has said he and his counterparts in other states want any follow-up payments to be easy to administer, though they have not weighed in on any specific plans.

“There is still a long way to go for the economy to recover and a large number of people needing assistance,” he said.

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