How many Oregonians are so frustrated with the state’s unemployment system that they have given up seeking benefits?
How many weeks — or months — have some Oregonians been waiting to learn the status of their unemployment claim?
Seven months into the pandemic-related business closures and restrictions, the Oregon Employment Department has found no way to answer these two questions. Despite the agency’s considerable progress in speeding up claim decisions and distributing $5.2 billion in jobless benefits since the coronavirus shutdowns began in mid-March, it remains impossible to know how many unemployed Oregonians have been left by the wayside.
For instance, the average hold time for callers on the department hotlines was 72 minutes as of midweek, which is unacceptable yet a vast improvement from months ago. However, that doesn’t include the many people who cannot get into the phone queues because of persistent busy signals. (The agency encourages people to use the Contact Us form on its website instead of calling or emailing.)
Still, Acting Director David Gerstenfeld sets a good example for his government colleagues by willingly and patiently taking tough questions from journalists, even when he doesn’t have answers. Almost every week, he conducts a media availability via videoconference.
This week we learned that several thousand Oregonians are not eligible for the state’s innovative Benefits While You Wait program, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The federal decision will restrict access by about one-third. Oregon created the program to get benefits going to certain types of claimants awaiting decisions on eligibility.
One piece of good news this week is that the agency finally has figured out how many people are waiting for their claims to be adjudicated: 48,000. The department has gone on a hiring and training binge for adjudicators, but adjudication remains the biggest challenge.
Meanwhile, the department’s generic form letters to claimants often create confusion. Gerstenfeld says that’s because the computer-generated letters were written for traditional unemployment situations, not the pandemic. True, but the agency’s letters never were known for their readability.
There is improvement: This week’s announcement that Oregon’s unemployment rate dropped slightly in September to 8% also brought its own questions.
“Overall the state has now regained 45% of its lost jobs. This truly does remain good news overall, even if the path forward isn’t well lit,” senior economist Josh Lehner wrote Thursday in the state Office of Economic Analysis blog.
He acknowledged that the pace of economic recovery has slowed. Oregon still has a Great Recession-sized hole.
“That doesn’t mean the recovery is in jeopardy, even if it will feel that way. The combination of any seasonal component to the virus, plus the seasonal issues related to the colder, wetter months when we are forced indoors more, plus some hangover from the lapse in federal aid, and that underlying traditional recessionary dynamic will all weigh on growth in the months ahead,” Lehner wrote. “After that, growth should pick up and, again, provided the permanent damage is fairly minimal, the overall recovery will be faster.
A long-term question is how many Oregon businesses will fold, permanently eliminating their jobs. Meanwhile, large swaths of the economy, including local governments, cannot recover until the pandemic is over.
Channeling Mr. Rogers: Colt Gill, who runs the Oregon Department of Education, offered advice on coping with our multiple crises, which he said were the COVID-19 pandemic, the turmoil of a country coming to terms with racism and Oregon’s widespread wildfires.
“I’m reminded of the words of Fred Rogers when he said, ‘When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping,’” Gill wrote in the department’s monthly newsletter. “Sure enough, there are plenty of stories of people who are helping.”
Wildfires and the Census: The toll from Oregon’s unprecedented wildfires continues. This week, the state Office of Emergency Management said that 4,023 residences were destroyed, along with an estimated 1,400 other structures. The fires, which killed nine people and left one person missing, covered 1.2 million acres — almost 2% of the state.
Gov. Kate Brown, who recently talked by phone with President Donald Trump to speed up federal wildfire disaster assistance to the state, blasted his administration Wednesday night after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the 2020 Census to end.
“Let me be clear: Undermining the census will have devastating consequences for the next decade all across Oregon’s communities, but especially for communities of color, Tribal and American Indian communities, and other historically hard-to-count populations,” she said in a statement issued by her office. “The Trump administration has politicized the 2020 Census at every single turn.”
By the way, less widely acknowledged was that Congressman Greg Walden, R-2nd District, also talked with Trump to spur the federal disaster declaration and its accompanying aid. Walden, along with Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, toured the wildfire aftermath in Southern Oregon, including Talent and Phoenix. Armed with photos of the devastation, Walden traveled the next day to California to meet personally with Trump, who was assessing that state’s wildfires.
Whose priorities?: Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, continues to blast Gov. Brown for her pandemic restrictions and for the sometimes-violent protests in Portland: “Is this the Governor’s plan for a ‘new normal;’ with students locked out of their regular classrooms while violent anarchists, mobs, rioters and looters regularly engage in mayhem without consequence?”
Civic spirit in Klamath Falls: During last month’s Legislative Days, state senators remarked on the large number of Klamath Falls residents whom Brown was appointing to state boards and commissions. The appointments require Senate approval.
“I don’t know what it is about the water down there, but people are imbued with a civic spirit that I think we all can appreciate,” said Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland.
Praise for our northern neighbor: A Politico story this week highlighted states that have done the best in fighting the coronavirus, handling the economic fallout and/or reopening schools. Washington state was featured; Oregon was not.
Higher fees: The Respiratory Therapist and Polysomnographic Technologist Licensing Board will ask the 2021 Legislature for a $50 increase in licensing fees. The money apparently is needed to cover the increased overhead resulting from the state Health Licensing Office being part of the Oregon Health Authority.
Electing a new governor: The race for a new governor is nearly underway — among Oregon fifth-graders.
Oct. 22 is the deadline for nominating a candidate for Oregon’s Kid Governor and submitting that student’s video. Nov. 1 is the deadline for fifth-grade teachers to register their class to vote in the statewide election.
Since the late Secretary of State Dennis Richardson launched the program, Oregon fifth-graders have elected three Kid Governors: Dom Peters, Gervais, 2018; Erikka Baldwin, Eugene, 2019; and Raaga Mandala, Portland, 2020.
For information, go online to or.kidgovernor.org.