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For jobless workers, hits just keep on coming

If Oregon elected officials’ handling of federal coronavirus aid money has been less than transparent — a situation we described in Thursday’s editorial — the state agency responsible for dispersing unemployment compensation has been downright opaque. At a time when record numbers of Oregonians have abruptly lost their jobs because their employers were forced to shut down, that is unconscionable.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who worked with the rest of the state’s Congressional delegation to pass expanded unemployment benefits to help jobless workers weather the coronavirus shutdown, harshly criticized the state for its failure to handle the onslaught of claims for benefits.

Since mid-March, 400,000 Oregonians applied for benefits. The state’s unemployment rate reached 14.2% in April, the highest in Oregon history.

A combination of failures — computer systems more than two decades old, inadequate staffing and phone systems that couldn’t handle the load — meant many applicants were mistakenly denied benefits when they first applied online, then kept on hold for hours or disconnected entirely when they tried to make direct contact.

Nearly 50,000 claims are still unresolved, and thousands more from self-employed and gig workers who are not usually eligible were added because of the extraordinary impact of the pandemic on their livelihoods.

We understand the limitations of obsolete technology and inadequate staffing — although millions in federal funding for computer upgrades appropriated in 2009 remains unspent, and state officials supposedly ramped up Employment Department hiring to deal with the increased demand. The really frustrating — and, frankly, unforgivable — factor in all of this is the refusal of state officials from Employment Department leadership all the way up to Gov. Kate Brown to communicate with frantic workers about the problems and to give them an idea of when they might expect to hear something — anything — about their claims.

Brown sent out a tweet apologizing for the delays: “If you’re waiting on an unemployment claim: I hear your frustration. I’m sorry for the delays. I’m committed to ensuring that eligible Oregonians receive the maximum benefits available, as quickly as possible. These benefits are critical during this stressful time.”

That was on April 26.

Jobless workers worried about paying their bills and putting food on their tables don’t need apologies. They need action.

If the state can’t provide rapid responses to claims, the least they can do is communicate with applicants and let them know they haven’t been forgotten. Workers thrown off the job indefinitely without warning deserve nothing less.