The number of initial unemployment claims have risen sharply and are now declining after the outbreak of COVID-19. (Courtesy/Oregon Employment Department).

The Oregon Employment Department has made progress in processing the record backlog of unemployment claims caused by the coronavirus pandemic. However, tens of thousands of unemployed people will still have to wait months for benefits, David Gerstenfeld, the acting director of the Oregon Employment Department, said in a media call on Wednesday.

He said that between March 15 and July 18, the department received 533,000, a record number of claims for unemployment insurance. Of those, fewer than 1,200 have not been processed yet. Those remaining were all filed this month and are being processed quickly he said. 

“We've gone from the lowest unemployment rate in the state's history to the highest unemployment rate in the state's history,” he said. “And that happened not over the course of a year, like most traditional recessions, but almost overnight. And that's been incredibly stressful on so many people who rapidly saw their income just disappear.”

But Gerstenfeld said that many of those claims that have been processed are stuck in adjudication. The adjudication is a fact-finding process to determine if someone is eligible for benefits after quitting a job, being fired or not accepting work.

Gerstenfeld didn’t have a precise number of how many claims are in adjudication but it’s in the “tens of thousands” and the timeline for clearing them is 12 to 14 weeks.

He said that the department had 80 adjudicators before the pandemic began and there are now more than 210. There are plans to hire at least 100 more, he said.

The department has made progress on processing the claims filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, he said. The program was created by the federal relief package passed by Congress this spring and extends unemployment to self-employed and gig workers who wouldn’t normally qualify for traditional unemployment benefits.

Earlier this month, the department contracted with Google to set up a new form for the program. Gerstenfeld said that the department has had 115,000 weekly claims handled by the new system. Several weeks ago the department had 70,000 applications for the new program with a goal to process them by Aug. 8.

As of last week, the department has processed about 70% or 50,000 of those claims, paying out $65 million in benefits, he said.

As part of the federal pandemic relief package, people receiving unemployment get an additional $600. The additional benefit ended last week, but Gerstenfeld said it will be applied retroactively to claims that haven’t been paid.

Congress is considering another relief package and is debating extending the benefit or reducing it.

Gerstenfeld has paid out $2.2 billion in the additional pandemic benefit, which he said has had a “big impact” on the state economy.

Patrick O’Connor, a regional economist with the department, said that numbers on how many people in the Salem area have received the additional $600 benefit were not yet available.

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Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.