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Unemployment claim backlog drops despite workplace outbreak

Oregon Employment Department employees continue to whittle away at backlogs of claims and benefit payments despite a COVID-19 outbreak at its major claims center in Wilsonville.

According to the weekly compilation by the Oregon Health Authority, the center reported 14 cases as of Nov. 28, up from the 11 acknowledged last week by acting Employment Department Director David Gerstenfeld.

It is one of seven state government workplaces reporting outbreaks (minimum five cases) of the 124 statewide on the Health Authority’s list. The others are the Oregon State Hospital in Salem, two prisons in Salem and prisons in Madras, Ontario and Pendleton.

Gerstenfeld says the outbreak spurred his agency to continue to move hundreds of employees toward working remotely. About 600 employees, many hired within the past few months to process the growing workloads, were housed in the 100,000-square-foot building in Wilsonville.

“We were seeing an increase in positive COVID-19 cases among our own employees, an increase that mirrors what has been happening across the country and throughout the state,” he told reporters Wednesday, Dec. 9, during a weekly conference call.

“Fortunately, the disruption to handling our claims is less than we had feared. We are not slowing down, and we will keep confronting every challenge that faces us.”

The Wilsonville building remains open.

Gerstenfeld said claims for unemployment benefits still in “adjudication,” which require further review, were down from 52,000 Sept. 30 to around 12,600. About 22,000 await payment of their waiting-week benefits, down from an estimated 170,000 whose payments required some kind of manual processing. A total of $269 million has been paid to 385,000 people.

Gerstenfeld said he is optimistic that agency employees will be able to complete both tasks by the end of December.

As a result of the two-week business freeze ordered by Gov. Kate Brown that ended Dec. 3, plus seasonal changes, the Employment Department received about 53,000 claims for unemployment benefits, slightly more than the 51,000 it projected. About 19,000 were newly filed claims, and 34,000 were restarts of previous claims, for which the agency has information on file. The normal benefit period is 26 weeks.

Gerstenfeld said the most recent claims backlog for regular unemployment benefits was about 2,200, most being processed within five days of filing. He said the oldest ones date back to Nov. 18.

The agency has paid out $6.2 billion in benefits since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March. Gerstenfeld said that sum equals the amount that the agency has paid out during the past decade.