Oregon Employment Department. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

In another sign the pandemic is waning, the Oregon Employment Department announced a shift in requirements for people receiving unemployment benefits: they’ll have to start actively looking for work. 

David Gerstenfeld, the department’s acting director, made the announcement on a press call Wednesday. While people receiving unemployment benefits are normally required to look for work, Gerstenfeld explained that the department paused the requirements early in the pandemic because of the accompanying emergency orders and public health crisis.

With vaccinations increasing and the economy reopening, the requirement to look for work will be phased back in gradually, said Gerstenfeld. He said the first requirement will be for people receiving benefits to register with the department’s job-matching program. From there, they’ll need to have an appointment at a local WorkSource center to connect with possible jobs and resources. They’ll then have to be available for work and actively seek a job. 

He didn’t offer specific dates for when the requirements kick in but said the department will be reaching out to people receiving benefits. 

“What we hope it will do is that it will make sure that everybody knows about the tools and resources that we and our workforce partners have to help people find jobs, careers (and) training opportunities,” he said. “So that should decrease the number of people receiving benefits because they're actually getting back to work in jobs that fit.”

Gerstenfeld acknowledged that many laid-off Oregonians are still having trouble finding childcare or have health concerns. He said that hopefully, the WorkSource centers can help people find resources to overcome those barriers. 

The announcement follows underwhelming job numbers for Oregon with the state unemployment rate still stuck at 6% in April. 

But Gerstenfeld said job openings have returned to pre-pandemic levels with businesses advertising as many vacancies as they did a couple of years ago. He also said the department has no plans to end special federal unemployment programs created to address the pandemic. 

Since March 2020, he said the department has paid $9.1 billion in benefits to over 589,000 people.

In Marion County, 3,054 people filed for continuing unemployment claims in March, according to the most recent numbers from the Employment Department. That’s a decrease from 4,218 in April. For Polk County, 712 people filed for continuing benefits in March, down from the 931 the previous month. Continuing claims are from laid-off people who are continuing to seek benefits after filing their initial claim. 

The department also announced the state has hired FAST Enterprises to modernize the state’s archaic computer system used to process unemployment claims. The 1990s-era system was blamed for causing a massive backlog of claims and delays in benefit payments as laid-off Oregonians overwhelmed the department during the pandemic. 

The company will update the Employment Department’s core technology systems. The project will formally start in July 2021 and will include updates to the state unemployment system, including collection of taxes paid to support it as well as benefits paid. Gerstenfeld said benefits under the new system will be paid in 2024. 

“We're committed to improving the experience of all Oregonians who seek our services,” said Gerstenfeld. “We'll be using the lessons that we've learned since the start of this pandemic as a guide.”

Additionally, the project will include the state’s new Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance, which will begin collecting contributions from employers next year and paying benefits the following year. 

The project is intended to enhance the user's experience and is not expected to disrupt the department’s ability to pay benefits, according to a department news release. Gerstenfeld said. 

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

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