PORTLAND, Ore — The Oregon Employment Department (OED) released new data Thursday that shows about 20% of the statewide labor force has filed for unemployment benefits. Accommodation and food service industries have been the hardest hit.
Months into the pandemic, and the historic layoffs that accompanied it, many people are still frustrated and running out of options as they try to get their unemployment benefits in Oregon. Nearly half of unemployment claims filed still have to be paid out and tens of thousands are backlogged.
“It shows in there on the app all the weeks I've claimed but it just says ‘not processed’ and it’s been saying that now for nine weeks,” said Bobby Ballejos, a gig worker in Medford. “This Sunday is going to be the 10th week of trying to file a claim. I’ve been calling day in and day out, all day long.”
Ballejos can't get through to the employment department on the phone – and he isn’t alone. When the call connects, many are put on hold for hours, and then get disconnected.
“I file three different times on Sunday mornings and I’ve sent Facebook messages and called for hours and hours and hours the first few weeks,” said Portland-based videographer Erik Schultz. “I've given up on calling.”
Horror stories are happening in all pockets of the state.
“It's just not the life I want to lead right now,” said dog sport and dog show photographer Nina Aage.
As each day passes with no pay, people lose hope.
“Nobody can really see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Schultz said. “We’re all trying to get creative with trying to pay bills; doing eBay, side jobs, selling random things around the house. Doing whatever you can to pay the bills and keep putting food on the table. Especially when it’s been 10 weeks and you know nothing’s coming, or you don’t think anything is coming, you start getting creative.”
“We're a family of five getting by on very little,” Ballejos said. “We’re having to borrow money from family. The same scenario a lot of people are going through. It’s a terrible thing to not only have to deal with it myself, but to see it with other people, too. That’s hurtful.”
Many haven't heard a peep from the employment department other than confirmation once they submitted their claims or denial letters.
While the state says 90% of the more than 440,000 traditional unemployment claims have been processed, that doesn’t mean all of those people have been paid their benefits. In fact, about half those people haven't seen a penny, according to OED.
That figure doesn't include Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) claims for self-employed workers.
"We're the forgotten group,” Sage added.
We don't yet know the true number of Oregonians who have been waiting months for the help they so desperately need. Many reached out to us after employment department leaders presented information to an Oregon House interim committee on Wednesday about their response, system inadequacies, staffing struggles and complexities.
They also shared information about a new plan called Project Focus 100, aimed at getting tens of thousands of claims out of the processing logjam and improve service and communication.
But a lot of people aren't satisfied with their response, or their future strategy.
“That gives me a little light and a little hope but I've got to say I'm still hesitant, reluctant, I'm still skeptical. It's a broken system,” Ballejos said.
The legislative committee meeting went so long that lawmakers weren’t able to ask OED leaders any live follow-up questions.
"I read the PowerPoint short version,” Sage told KGW. “Not a whole lot of anything and just kind of did not mention PUA people at all. I don't think she truly addressed anything.”
Sage feels the system is unfair and is now processing newer claims, rather than chronologically. She feels it’s inaccurate on OED's part to tout their processing rate and say there are about 40,000 unprocessed backlogged claims, when that doesn’t account for all of the PUA claims.
"I went back and I caught a recap of the presentation and laughed at questions not asked about different situations. And the numbers contradicted what they were mentioning with actual payouts happening,” Schultz added.
"I know what they're putting out there isn't the whole truth and nothing but the truth so why do I need to pay attention? Basically, I keep checking my mailbox and every time I cross my fingers there is a check in there. And there hasn’t been yet.”
Oregon Employment Department leaders are set to respond to questions from the House Interim Committee on Business and Labor at 9 a.m. Saturday.