Oregon lawmakers question employment department officials about backlog of claims

Last month, the Oregon Department of Employment announced a plan to cut phone hours so staff could focus on resolving claims. Lawmakers had questions about the agency.

SALEM, Ore. Late last month, committees from the Oregon House and Senate brought in executives from the Oregon Department of Employment to hear about the agency’s ongoing issues with back pay and unemployment claims.

It’s a problem the OED says predates the introduction of a new computer system, Frances Online, which replaced the archaic system it had been using for decades.

Regardless, the issues seem to have come to a head since earlier this year, with Oregonians continuing to report issues with receiving their benefits and incredible headaches trying to get someone at the OED on the phone to resolve them. those issues.

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Lawmakers asked OED officials to come in and explain the problems because, as Sen. Deb Patterson of the Labor and Business Committee said it’s an issue some of them have heard from constituents more than any other. She shared the experience of someone who needed to take sick leave and had called hundreds of times to check on her request.

“On all but one call, that person got a busy signal,” Patterson said. “The last call gave them an estimated wait time of 7 hours and 18 minutes. So they put it on speaker and with 15 minutes left on their wait time, the call was disconnected.”

OED Director David Gerstenfeld told lawmakers what his agency has been telling the media and the public for months; that their staffing levels are too low due to insufficient federal funding and the end of pandemic-era funding.

Frances Online, the department says, is much more up-to-date and simpler software than what they had before, and will ultimately help people get through the system faster. But staffing problems are hindering this.

“Between April 2023 and February 2024, which was right before we came out with our new unemployment technology, the percentage of people that we were able to get their first benefits within three weeks that the federal standard went from about 92 % to about 65. %, Gerstenfeld said. “So that preceded the transition to the new technology and it was because we only had a third more employees to do the work.”

To catch up with the backlog, the OED devised a plan to cut phone hours, not taking new calls at all on Mondays or after 4pm on other weekdays. But lawmakers in the Oregon House session weren’t convinced.

CONNECTED: Oregon Department of Employment cuts phone hours in an effort to catch up on backlogged unemployment claims

“I appreciate your comment about trying to catch everything, but for all the people who can’t get through the France system on Sunday, they are calling us now.” said Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson. “So, thanks for sharing, but I think the reality is that your 17,000 calls that you get in a day, we’re now getting some of those that put more pressure on your agency to try to help our constituents. So I I’m trying to figure out why Monday would be the right day to close.”

Gerstenfeld said the agency’s data shows they get more calls midweek than on Mondays. He hopes the change will give workers Monday to resolve claims issues so fewer people need to call later in the week, reducing the problem overall.

Most people, he said, are calling to check on the status of their claim. The OED hopes to resolve the issues before people need to call again.

Rep. Anna Scharf of the House Committee on Labor and Workplace Standards wanted to know why the Frances Online system couldn’t be used to give people better real-time updates.

“I’m really struggling, why is my office filled with calls? Thanks for keeping my staff busy, she always needs something more to do. Sorry Abby,” Scharf said dryly. “And then I’m struggling with Frances’ inability to really – we must have bought a mediocre software program because I can buy a Dominos pizza on my phone and I can watch them put the toppings on it and I know exactly that when it’s going to knock on my door So I can’t understand why Frances can’t let the tech-savvy applicants log in and see and say, ‘Oh, they’re putting pepperoni on my application, will. be here on Wednesday at 3. o’clock.’ Frances is a failure in that regard, for me, which is a failure for the software company that provided it to you.”

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Gerstenfeld explained that people can send messages to the OED through Frances Online, but sending multiple messages on the same topic can slow things down, as can making multiple phone calls, because staff members have to go in and clear each one. theirs.

But according to Gerstenfeld, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The Oregon Legislature previously passed a bill approving new funding for the OED to increase staffing levels. They have already started hiring. It will take some time to train the workers and get them processing the requests, but he expected that to happen by the end of the summer.

Lawmakers hope to see some change by then, and they have called on Gerstenfeld and other leaders from the OED to come back and provide an update in September.

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