State Rep. Andrea Salinas was livid.
She was discussing the Oregon Employment Department’s computer system, which continues to stymie thousands of out-of-work individuals from receiving timely unemployment benefits related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet since 2009, Salinas said, the department has had money to upgrade its Stone Age technology. The agency was unprepared — in technology, staffing and procedures — for the flood of unemployment applications that began in mid-March.
“This is ridiculous. I have people in my district who’ve been waiting 11 weeks,” Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, told constituents during a town hall this week. “I know my family could not survive 11 weeks without a paycheck. So I am very angry.”
She suggested the agency management became gun-shy from seeing the Cover Oregon debacle, adding, “We have to figure out how we in this state can do IT systems better. This is ridiculous.”
Oregon DMV did announce this week that it successfully completed replacement of its 1960s and ‘70s computer systems.
But the Employment Department snafus were a hot topic at the virtual town hall with state Senate Democratic Leader Rob Wagner, Lake Oswego; Rep. Rachel Prusak, D-West Linn; and Salinas.
“We talk about bipartisanship. Well, there is bipartisan frustration with what’s happened with the Employment Department,” Wagner said.
Some lawmakers are disappointed that the Legislature, during its three-day special session last month, did nothing to rectify the situation. For a variety of reasons, Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, said she would rate the session as a 5 on a 1-to-10 scale.
After the special session, President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said the unemployment situation was not discussed much beforehand.
“That is one of the policy issues we might get into in the next (special) session,” Courtney said. “Once we got into police accountability, that dominated everything.”
However, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said the Legislature could do little because federal regulations control the unemployment system.
“There wasn’t anything we could do statutorily to make that better,” Kotek said. “I think it’s a process issue. It’s an administrative implementation issue.”
With another special session pending, I asked the new head of the Employment Department what the Legislature could do.
“We’ve been talking to legislators a lot,” Acting Director David Gerstenfeld said this week. “They’ve been very helpful in terms of helping us identify trends and to provide that kind of frontline service to people that are seeking benefits.”
There has been discussion about small policy changes “that might make, frankly, minor differences in how we’re able to handle it,” Gerstenfeld said.
“There really isn’t a magic legislative fix that would let us quickly go through the claims much more rapidly. If there was, whether we had thought of it or anybody else, we certainly would be advocating actively. And everything that we’re hearing from the Legislature is that they certainly would be supportive of anything that we can do to get benefits to people more quickly.”
Kotek and Courtney now are proposing that the state give $500 checks to Oregonians who have applied for unemployment but not received benefits. The Legislative Emergency Board, which the presiding officers co-chair, will consider their idea on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, citing “four months of frustration with a state agency that seems incapable of meeting their obligations to working Oregonians,” has asked Secretary of State Bev Clarno to audit the Employment Department. He wants state auditors to evaluate:
• The status of the federal money intended for the computer system upgrade,
• “The efficacy of job assignments and wasted time while employees wait for direction from leadership,”
• “The phone systems and procedures to avoid multi-hour hold times for customers only to be disconnected at the end of the waiting period,”
• “Other states’ approaches in resolving PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) backlogs while ensuring timely payments of all other claims,” and
• “The need for an ‘express lane’ or ‘priority pass’ for those who waited, only to be denied and then told to go to the back of the PUA line.”
Local governments hope for money: As jobless Oregonians wait for the state to come through, so do local governments.
This has been an ongoing issue. While Gov. Kate Brown and others have complained about lack of federal money to prop up the state budget, local governments —particularly those outside the Portland metro area — have waited to receive their share of federal coronavirus relief money from the state.
Business, economic development and local government organizations recently wrote to Brown and legislative leaders. They asked that the state distribute the full $624 million made available by the feds for local governments in Oregon.
Behind the scenes, some local officials have been reluctant to challenge Brown’s COVID-19 policies for fear of retaliation. Kevin Mannix — a former legislator, gubernatorial candidate and head of the Oregon Republican Party — articulated that concern when I interviewed him several weeks ago.
“The governor now has in her purse tens of millions of federal emergency dollars that she gets to distribute to the counties. And if you’re a naughty county that questions the governor’s authority, the naughty county is going to get a lesser share of those resources,” Mannix said.
Reexamining Oregon law enforcement: Several things jumped out to me when Brown announced her Public Safety Training and Standards Task Force this week.
The Legislature already is doing similar work through its Joint Committee on Transparent Policing and Use of Force Reform, which is well into a series of hearings. Brown’s task force sounds duplicative.
The task force includes no one from the state’s training and certification agency, the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training. Neither do any members appear to be from outside the Willamette Valley. I asked the Governor’s Office why this was the case but have not heard back.
The members are good people, well-respected from what I know. But they mostly are the same people — the obvious choices — who get appointed to these types of groups, instead of recruiting new and contrasting voices.
Last month, in supporting the bill creating the Legislature’s committee on policing, Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio, spoke to the need for varied perspectives.
“I’d encourage you to ride with a Portland cop, but don’t forget to ride with a deputy in Eastern Oregon. Or a police officer in a department of three people,” said Sprenger, who served as the lone deputy in the Grant County Sheriff’s Department. “You cannot take a Portland or a Salem experience and translate that when you have one deputy.”