On Sunday, David Gerstenfeld accepted an unenviable job: director of the besieged state employment agency.
The Oregon Department of Employment has failed to secure timely payments – and clear benefit information – to thousands of unemployed Oregon residents due to the coronavirus pandemic .
Governor Kate Brown on Sunday asked director Kay Erickson to step down, appointing Gerstenfeld as interim director.
In a call to reporters on Wednesday, Gerstenfeld apologized for the department’s missteps and pledged to be more transparent with Oregonians.
“To those who have not yet received their allowances, I would like to apologize,” said Gerstenfeld. “I’m so sorry. I know you are frustrated and anxious and many of you have not been able to reach us or get the answers and help you need. Although none of us have caused the pandemic, it is my responsibility to ensure we provide people with the benefits to which they are entitled.
The agency has hired more people to handle the onslaught of claims caused by a pandemic and is focused on processing older benefit claims.
At the start of the pandemic, 100 workers were processing claims; 700 are now dedicated to this task.
And since a new effort to clear a backlog of claims began on Friday, workers have processed about 16,000 of the 38,000 unresolved claims for regular unemployment insurance benefits, the agency said.
As of last week, approximately 245,000 Oregonians have received benefits, but there are still thousands of claims that have not been processed and people are still waiting for money.
Following:Thousands of people in Oregon are desperate because they cannot get the unemployment they are owed
Gerstenfeld said he was unable to provide an up-to-date figure for the number of people who received their benefits, although he said the state paid Oregonians about $ 1.5 billion without employment in the last two months.
The high volume of applicants and federal policy changes aimed at expanding benefits overwhelmed the agency’s obsolete phone lines and computer system.
Many Oregon residents who called the agency to ask about their claims received busy signals; those who can cope often face long waiting times. In April, some people were wrongly asked to resume their claims. Others have received confused or vague letters from the agency.
And the agency has not been able to implement an effort by policymakers to secure another week of benefits for Oregonians by waiving the typical one-week waiting period.
When asked what he would do to make sure the change in leadership isn’t just superficial, Gerstenfeld said he was “dedicated” to improving communication.
Ousted:Oregon Director of Employment Kay Erickson resigns at Governor Brown’s request
He said he wanted to be clear about the agency’s issues and that the agency wanted to recruit volunteers from other government agencies to call people whose requests have yet to be processed. He said the agency was discussing with the National Guard the possibility of obtaining members of the guard to help with claims as well.
Before becoming interim director, Gerstenfeld headed the agency’s division overseeing family insurance and paid medical leave.
And from 2011 to 2019, Gerstenfeld headed the agency’s division overseeing unemployment insurance. His time there coincided with Oregon’s long recovery from the Great Recession, and what at the time were “historic high workloads” and a series of new federal programs and changes, he said. he declares.
“I have been through this and have seen what are some of the challenges and what are some of the strategies that can help,” said Gerstenfeld.
As the pandemic has presented challenges on a whole new scale, he said the agency is bringing in retired employees who have weathered the recession.
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Claire Withycombe is a reporter for the Statesman Journal. Contact her at [email protected], 503-910-3821 or follow her on Twitter @kcwithycombe.