The headquarters of the Oregon Lottery. (Jake Thomas/Salem Reporter)

After winning $1,500 playing video lottery two weeks ago, Pierre Nelson had an unexpected reaction: frustration.

Nelson, a resident of Salem, had won the money playing Big City 5, a slot-machine style game where players can bet on and win on multiple paylines.

The Oregon Lottery’s payment centers in Salem and Wilsonville have been closed to the public as a pandemic precaution. Nelson deposited his prize claim in a dropbox in Salem. But the response from the Oregon Lottery was that he would have to wait a month for the payment to be processed. “I’m thinking, ‘this sucks,’” said Nelson, who’s been living off unemployment. “Because I have to wait a month, and I have bills.”

While the end of most pandemic restrictions could come as soon as next week once 70% of eligible Oregonians are vaccinated against Covid, the Oregon Lottery is still playing catch up from delays caused by the pandemic.

Video lottery became unavailable as part of restrictions enacted by Gov. Kate Brown in response to rising Covid cases over the winter that closed bars and restaurants to indoor service. After the restrictions were eased in January, video lottery enthusiasts flocked to bars and taverns.

In Marion County alone video lottery sales rose from $212,084 in January to $9.4 million in April. Similarly, Polk County saw an increase from $27,453 to $1.1 million in the same timeframe.

When asked about the delay in payments, Matt Shelby, Oregon Lottery spokesman, responded with an email saying that he didn’t have numbers on how big the backlog is. But he said that currently, it takes about three weeks for the Oregon Lottery to process a prize claim. Normally, in-person claims were processed immediately. He said the agency hopes to get that down to a week before it opens up for in-person claims later this month.

He said the backlog was caused by multiple reasons that include the closure of the Salem and Wilsonville lottery offices closed to the public for walk-ins earlier in the pandemic. Mail-in claims take longer to process, he said.

Additionally, Shelby said the Oregon Lottery has limited hours and saw staffing reductions at the peak of the pandemic that haven’t been restored. Now, the number of claims has increased as businesses have begun reopening across the state, he said.

“That said, we want to pay winners as soon as possible given our current constraints,” said Shelby.

Shelby said the Oregon Lottery has recently authorized new hires and weekend overtime shifts to speed up the processing of claims. The Oregon Lottery is also setting up a new online reservation system to allow people to schedule in-person visits that’ll allow a safe number of winners in the lobby at any time.

In the meantime, Nelson said he’ll be watching the mail for his prize money. He’s getting unemployment for now. But the extra cash would help with rent and bills. 

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

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