A chart comparing unemployment in Oregon caused by the pandemic to the Great Recession. (Courtesy/Oregon Employment Department)

Relief is on the way for more self-employed Oregonians affected by the pandemic as the state Employment Department has cleared a goal.

During a Wednesday press call, Oregon Employment Department Acting Director David Gerstenfeld said that the department has processed 70,000 applications for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance before its original Aug. 8 target.

The program was created by Congress this spring to extend unemployment benefits to self-employed or gig workers. The department has struggled with the surge of claims for unemployment benefits during the pandemic and Gerstenfeld set the goal to speed up processing of claims leftover from when the program was launched. During the past week, the department processed more than 20,000 initial claims for the program.

He said that the department has seen over 650,000 claims filed since March when the pandemic struck, including for regular unemployment insurance and for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. The department is also processing regular unemployment benefits in the pre-pandemic timeline of about four weeks.

Between March 15 and Aug. 1, the department paid out $3.6 billion in benefits, he said.

However, he restated that tens of thousands of claims haven’t been paid because they are in adjudication, a process for claims that require additional review.

“We know that there are still challenges and that a lot of people are still waiting for their benefit and it’s an increasingly desperate situation,” he said.

But Debra Magby said she’s still waiting on benefits. Magby said that she lives in a travel trailer in Salem and is on the verge of becoming homeless. She said she used to work odd jobs such as painting porches for elderly residents before work dried up.

She said she applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance May 1 but hasn’t seen any benefits. Last week, Magby said that she received 18 letters from the department.

“When I saw the envelopes, I thought it was going to be my checks,” she said.

They instead carried bad news: the department couldn’t pay her benefits. She described the letters as confusing, stating that she had worked more than 40 hours, which she says she didn’t. They also said she needed to restart her claim even though she said she filed it twice.

The letters also asked for her to name an employer, which she says doesn’t apply to her. Magby said she tried calling two numbers. One was out of service. The other just hung up. She tried one again only to get a busy signal.

“I’ve borrowed money until I can’t borrow anymore,” she said.

When asked about Magby’s situation, Gerstenfeld said that if someone is currently self-employed and has worked a regular job, the department still needs to determine if they are eligible for traditional unemployment benefits.

“So that's been one of the challenges that we faced in the people speaking benefits that face is that these programs are complicated,” he said.

In Marion County, there have been 30,765 initial unemployment claims filed in the last 16 weeks. In Polk County, that number is 6,986.

The number of initial claims has been declining during the summer.

In June, there continued to be 9,785 continuing claims for Marion County, down from 12,927 in May for Marion County.

Polk County followed a similar pattern. In May there were 2,719 continuing claims, which dropped to 2,091 for June.

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