Oregon Employment Department. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
Oregon missed its midyear target for improving the employment department’s woeful phone system, but the state says it remains committed to resolving the issues by the end of the year.
It was well-nigh impossible to reach the Oregon Employment Department in the early months of the pandemic, when the agency was overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of jobless claims that suddenly flooded its system.
The department was hobbled by its obsolete computer system, which incorrectly issued automated denials for many claims and required many others to be processed manually.
The result was a bottleneck that held up claims — Oregon was among the slowest in the nation at paying benefits — and jammed its phone lines as newly laid off workers sought answers as to why they weren’t getting their benefits.
In April, more than a year into the pandemic, workers still spent an average of 70 minutes on hold when calling the employment department about their claims. People who sent in an online inquiry typically spent a month waiting for an answer.
The department pledged to do better, setting targets to significantly cut wait times by the middle of June and return to its pre-pandemic performance by the end of 2021.
Last week, though, the department acknowledged it didn’t meet its June targets.
“Like some other Oregon employers, we’re still struggling to find enough workers,” interim Director David Gerstenfeld said on his weekly media call last week. He said that has prevented the department from staffing up to levels adequate to deal with the volume of calls and questions.
Employers across the state report struggles to find workers amid a tight labor market as businesses race to hire in the aftermath of the pandemic. The number of workers collecting jobless benefits is plunging as Oregonians return to the workforce in great numbers, but competition for those workers is fierce.
The employment department had sought to answer 80% of calls within 15 minutes and resolve 90% of online inquires within a week by the end of June.
Instead, Gerstenfeld said callers still spend an average of 34 minutes on hold. And the department still takes almost two weeks to respond to online messages on average.
Some claimants report they continue to spend hours on hold, transferred between claims processors and adjudicators as the department works to untangle complicated claims. But Gerstenfeld said the department is steadily working through its backlog. It responds to at least 11,000 online inquiries a week, he said, far in excess of the 8,000 new inquiries it receives each week.
And the employment department said it’s sticking by its goals for the end of the year: answering 90% of calls within five minutes, as it did before the pandemic.
“We know that we’re not yet where we want to be,” Gerstenfeld said, “but we have made progress.”
— Mike Rogoway | [email protected] | twitter: @rogoway |
This story published with permission as part of the AP Storyshare system. Salem Reporter is a contributor to this network of Oregon news outlets.
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