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By The Skanner News | The Skanner News
Published: 23 December 2010

Whose idea was it at Oregon Employment Department to deny thousands of Oregon's laid-off educational workers their Unemployment Insurance (IU) payment due this holiday week? Purportedly, this delay was in order for the agency to confirm that these educational workers did indeed receive payment a year ago during the holidays. Otherwise, their claim for the holiday hours they weren't paid last year would be denied this year. To investigate this, a form was sent by the agency via the U.S. mail to ALL laid off educational institution workers sometime during the week of December 13, whether or not they worked on an academic calendar year. On inquiry, however, not all laid off educational institution workers received the letter and form and some claims sailed through with payment approved, which creates a huge credibility issue for the department. On checking, an announcement regarding the possible delay wasn't posted to their website until December 10, 2010 (see School employees heading at http://www.oregon.gov/EMPLOY/UI/ui_issues_affect_benefits.shtml ). In a written notice mailed, it stated payments could be delayed up to 3 weeks during the investigation period.

Overall, it seems that people's experience with Oregon Unemployment has been satisfactory and there are certainly some courteous and kind people who work directly with the unemployed. It can't be denied however, that things aren't as well thought out as they could be in administering IU funds. Proof of this comes from recipients more discerning now than in the past perhaps because a larger number of post secondary graduates are using the system. They are seeing and reporting the errors in management and the clunky process in providing service to the unemployed. Some problems are blatant. One UI applicant, a former researcher, moved to the highest level on the math evaluation tests (Math and English tests are a requirement in order to receive UI) and found that none of the answers on a couple of the questions corresponded with the correct answer they had calculated. When it was brought to the attention of the department staff, the applicant was told to just ignore it and move on. Another applicant was told by a counselor that most of what they were required to do in order to get to the counselor's desk was red tape, jumping through hoops, and didn't mean much.

This current investigation about holiday pay comes at an already stressful week, as through the agency's own admission, they accidentally (undoubtedly a costly mistake) required on last week's claim forms, a listing of 3 work seeking related activities from ALL recipients, when normally this request applies only to those on a certain tier of unemployment compensation. In itself, the increase in processing these responses from all claimants would cause additional stress on an already stressed system. Add to that the enormous number of inquiries via phone and email due to non-payment of claims this week to unemployed education workers.

When checking the status of this week's claim on Tuesday, one unemployed educational worker in Multnomah County noted a statement on the report that said there had been a "problem" with the claim and the information and instructions regarding the problem had been mailed to the recipient and there would be no payment until this was resolved. This came following the recipient mailing the first education information form from the previous week, filling it out and sending it back the day it was received in the mail. The department would have received it, but obviously did not process it.

Why didn't they start this investigative process two months ago? Why isn't this part of the process when they initially investigate the claimant's application for benefits? If they knew it would take weeks to investigate, why did they wait so long to start the process? This translates to a form of delayed communication, giving monetary advantage to the agency at the sacrifice of the recipients, when the agency is supposed to be serving the people.

Most recipients of unemployment insurance compensation do not make enough money through their unemployment to cover their bills. Some are able to subsidize this income using small amounts through savings or side jobs … others just do without. When one is on a bare bones budget and the money relied on is delayed through no fault of their own in a punitive manner, it makes one wonder what is going on? In addition, the half communication about the "problem" and even using the word "problem" in correspondence but not providing any additional details other than that further information and instructions will be sent in the mail (why doesn't the department use email for this?) causes extreme anxiety for the claimant. By using the slowest process of communication, claimants wait an interminable amount of time to find out what it is that they need to do in order to get their unemployment insurance payment back on track. This delay is due to action on the part of the agency and through no fault of the recipient.

In an effort to expedite what one Multnomah County claimant knew would already result in an unnecessary delay in the week's payment, on Wednesday a call was placed to the department that handles claim status inquiries to try to obtain the additional information about the "problem" addressed in a letter that had not yet been received by the claimant. At 8:01 a.m. Wednesday when the call was placed, the overnight message was still on, saying office hours began at 8:00 a.m. and to call back then. Immediately dialing again, the call then resulted in a dead end message saying recipient would receive a call back within 8-11 minutes in the order the call was received. This was at 8:07 a.m. on Wednesday. At 8:51 a.m. and no return call had been received, another message was left with the department. The agency message at that time stated the response time to return calls was now 40-45 minutes, as the department was receiving an unusually high volume of calls. When no call back was received by the department at 2 p.m. another call was placed to the UI office and the response was a busy signal with no opportunity to speak to anyone or leave a message. At 3 p.m. claimant received in the mail the letter from the agency stating that the delay was due to not receiving the education questionnaire form, and if it had not already been submitted, to submit it. This particular claimant had mailed in the form the previous week, and because it had not yet been processed by the department, another "automatic letter" was sent out, making this mailing pointless and a waste of resources.

This adds up to thoughtless planning with no seeming awareness of the implications of this at an already stressful time of year, putting an additional stress load on claimants and agency staff. In addition to the back to back two short holiday work weeks ahead that will further delay processing claims, it could be more than two weeks before certain claimants receive their payments. Some perceive it as Oregon Department of Employment management's deep disrespect for all workers.

Naomi Pierce

Multnomah County

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