SALEM, Ore. — The new interim director of the Oregon Employment Department says new resources will help address the backlog of unemployment claims.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Joey Wardenaar worked as a chef at Irving Street Kitchen in Portland's downtown Pearl District. The restaurant closed at the end of March.
"I was there for the first service, and I was there for the last service," Wardenaar said. "We didn't work that hard at that restaurant because it was just a job, it was something that we cared about and that we all poured our lives into."
Wardenaar said he was one of the lucky ones who applied early and received Oregon unemployment benefits without a problem.
"I think a lot of people have struggled since the system got kind of bogged down," Wardenaar said.
"We know Oregonians are still waiting and continue to feel frustrated," Oregon Employment Department interim director David Gerstenfeld told reporters over Zoom on Wednesday. "A delayed check from us means that somebody might not able to pay the rent, buy groceries, or pay their bills."
Gerstenfeld said there are about 13,000 unprocessed claims in Oregon. At least 5,800 Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUC) claims are on track to be processed by Friday, June 12.
"One of our key things is really focused on those people who have been waiting the longest," Gerstenfeld explained.
He said claims keep coming, so the department is working to increase staff and communication. Since the pandemic, the department has increased staffing from about 100 claims experts to about 700. State employees and national guard members are also now trained as volunteers to call applicants about their claim status.
The key for those waiting for an old claim is to answer the phone.
"Our phone system... doesn't [always] show up to them as a state of Oregon phone number calling them," Gerstenfeld said. "We know... many people screen their calls so they're not answering."
The employment department launched a new hotline to help PUC applicants last week, with 138 new phone lines to take calls.
The department is also working with Google to develop a more user-friendly pandemic assistance application.
Gerstenfeld explained other technology updates have been in the works for about eight years, as Oregon observed failed projects in other states.
"We didn't want to rush it and have it be an unsuccessful project," he said.
With $1.5 billion in Oregon benefits already sent out, claims experts face a growing challenge of fraud attempts. Gerstenfeld could not say how many people have submitted fraudulent applications, but said "many" had been intercepted before the state made payments.
Even with his benefits, Joey Wardenaar knew it would likely be a long time before he could return to Irving Street Kitchen.
He applied to the Portland-based online learning program, Treehouse, and is now taking free computer coding classes.
"Keep working on any avenue you can find," Wardenaar said. "Try to figure out what else could be beneficial to you, but also make you happy."