The new interim director of the Oregon Employment Department says the staff has made measurable progress in reducing the backlog of regular claims and increasing the number of phone calls answered.
David Gerstenfeld spoke with reporters Wednesday, June 3, three days after Gov. Kate Brown fired department Director Kay Erickson. Brown put him in charge of the state's response to a record number of unemployment benefit claims and three new federal programs to expand eligibility and extend benefits to nearly half a million Oregon workers, who have lost jobs or hours as a result of business shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic.
"I am very sorry. I know you are frustrated and anxious every day you have been unable to reach us or to get the answers and assistance you need."
The agency had already launched an effort to eliminate a backlog of 38,000 more complex and unresolved claims going back to Brown's stay-home orders starting in mid-March. Brown and legislators from both parties during recent meetings also pressed for better communication between the agency and would-be recipients, many stymied by their inability to get through on the phone or online.
"This weighs on me and our other dedicated public servants heavily every day. For those who have not yet received their benefits, I want to apologize," Gerstenfeld said on the conference call. "I am very sorry. I know you are frustrated and anxious every day you have been unable to reach us or to get the answers and assistance you need.
"It is our responsibility to get people the benefits they are entitled to."
Of the 38,000 oldest pending claims, he said, 16,200 had been handled by Wednesday — mostly by focusing the agency's most experienced claims processors on them — and he said he hopes the other 21,800 can be completed by June 12.
New unemployment claims were still being filed daily, so the total backlog as of Wednesday was 27,843.
As for phone calls, the number answered more than tripled in a few days — from 524 on May 28 to 1,731 on June 1 — and average call-waiting times decreased during a 24-hour period from 172 to 107 minutes.
Gerstenfeld said the agency hopes to obtain up to 100 volunteers from other state agencies to field calls. He said most will not have deep knowledge of the details of unemployment insurance and are not trained to resolve claims.
"But we heard the clear message that people need more communication," he said. "This is a start."
Gerstenfeld said the agency is exploring a suggestion, offered in writing by Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, during a weekend hearing by the House Business and Labor Committee, that the National Guard be enlisted to help in the outreach effort. He said he could not offer specifics yet.
The agency staff has jumped from about 100 claims processors to 700 and counting.
From March 15 through May 23, the agency received claims from 467,000 workers for regular unemployment benefits. Gerstenfeld said about 250,000 are receiving benefits. Some (about 73,000, as reported Saturday) do not qualify for benefits, though Gerstenfeld said they may be eligible for other programs, and thousands of others have qualified but have somehow failed to file for or claim a week of benefits.
The 467,000 total is more than triple Oregon's net job losses of 147,000 during the Great Recession a decade ago — and it took a year for the state to reach that low point.
"None of us was prepared to deal with the pandemic and the huge repercussions it has had on our lives," Gerstenfeld said. "No state's unemployment insurance program was prepared to deal with the rapid increase in people needing our assistance — and in dealing with that pressing need, also implementing new benefit programs to help people who otherwise would have no assistance during this crisis."
The total excludes a new group of people — the self-employed, independent contractors, gig and part-time workers — who now are eligible for benefits under a new program known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. More than 50,000 have applied so far, and Gerstenfeld said federal rules require applicants to provide information different from regular unemployment claims. Most of them have not paid into the current system, which was set up in the 1930s during the Great Depression, when the economy was structured differently.
Other new programs increase benefits for all laid-off workers by $600 per week through July 31 — it is up to Congress whether they will continue — and extend benefits by 13 weeks for workers who have exhausted their 26 weeks of regular benefits.
Congress enacted the new programs under the $3 trillion CARES Act.
Building on recession experience
Gerstenfeld earned a bachelor's degree in psychology in 1991 from Portland State University, and a law degree in 1994 from Lewis & Clark College. He has worked for the state since 1997, and was director of the unemployment insurance division from 2011 until he took a different job within the Employment Department in 2019.
Though current challenges differ vastly in scope from what he faced back then, Gerstenfeld said he was division director as Oregon was emerging from the depths of the Great Recession — and Congress did extend benefits, based on a state's unemployment rates, until 2013.
"We had what were at the time historically high workloads. They look much more manageable in comparison to what we have now," he said. "We also had a number of new federal programs coming out regularly… There were lots of programmatic changes, so I've been through that and seen what some of the challenges are and the strategies that can assist."
He said the agency has many current and retired employees who went through that recession: "Their experience is something we are taking advantage of."