An estimated 243,000 people are still unemployed in Oregon amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Oregon Employment Department has been struggling to keep up with backlogged claim requests since March.
On top of an overload of unemployment benefits to distribute, 12 employees have now tested positive for COVID-19 at seven of the employment department’s locations, potentially slowing the process even further.
As reported by The Register–Guard, David Gerstenfeld, the agency’s acting leader, said on Wednesday, July 15, “We are very concerned for our employees. And certainly, if more and more employees are not able to work, whether for COVID-19 or any other reason, that could have an impact on how quickly we can process claims.”
Pressure and urgency are continuing to build on the department, with some Oregonians still waiting on benefits for claims they filed months ago. As a result of the slowed distribution process, 13 people sued the agency and Gerstenfeld in the Multnomah County Circuit Court in hopes that the court would urge the agency to act faster with claims.
On Tuesday, July 14 – as a means of alleviating the situation – lawmakers voted to set up a program through the state’s main administrative agency to provide $500 checks to those who have not yet received their benefits.
COVID-19 outbreaks across the offices came after employment department employees expressed concern in March and April that their offices were not safe to work in. Four employees filed complaints in April with Oregon’s occupational safety and health agency, claiming that workers in the department were not six feet apart per social distancing mandates, that there was no one to oversee social distancing in the office, and that the agency wasn’t allowing employees to work from home.
Among these concerns, they also alleged that the department lacked cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer. Following these complaints, an occupational health consultant from Oregon OSHA discussed the allegations with the employment department’s property and risk manager, Timothy Dunks.
The agency made the following changes: it moved cubicles to space everyone six feet apart; assigned managers to enforce social distancing; split up shifts so fewer workers were in the office at one time; set up hand sanitizer in common areas and restrooms; supplied “cleaning chemicals” every day to “offices that need it;” and increased the number of times surfaces were cleaned.
The consultant from OSHA, Jennifer Ekdahl, documented the changes made to protect employees in a letter to Dunks on April 16. She said in the letter, “It seems you’re doing everything you can and I commend you for that.”
Despite the changes made, 12 agency employees have tested positive for the virus as cases continue to rise in the state of Oregon.
Aaron Covin, a spokesman for Oregon OSHA, wrote in an email to the Statesman Journal, “This is not about risk elimination. This is about risk reduction. Employers who fully apply COVID-19 guidance will reduce the likelihood that their employees get COVID at work – but they will not eliminate it.”
Gerstenfeld said, “I think this has been an evolving situation for everyone. And certainly, as we’re seeing everywhere in the state and in most parts of the nation, that the virus is continuing to spread, we did think it was appropriate to continuously reexamine what we can do to further protect our workers and further limit the spread.”
On July 10, the Oregon Employment Department informed its employees that it would start requiring them to wear masks to work to combat the spread of the virus. This requirement will go into effect once the agency receives a shipment of masks for workers, likely to be distributed July 23, according to spokeswoman Ariane Le Chevallier.
Currently, state workers are exempt from the mask mandate in areas where they are not dealing with the general public.
Gerstenfeld said of the new mask requirement at the agency, “Face coverings are not currently mandated in office settings where the public is not being served in person,” but we’re doing this as an additional preventative measure. We’ve been encouraging employees to wear face coverings if they can. And we’ve been encouraging employees whose jobs can be done remotely to telework.”
This past week, 20 workers from the agency started working from home as part of an agreement with a union to test out remote work. Some who are a part of this group are those employed at the Worksource office in Gresham, which was closed for two weeks at the beginning of July due to six employees having tested positive for COVID-19. Le Chevallier said that all workers who are able to work are working from home.
Steve Demarest, president of SEIU 503, the union representing workers from the agency, said, “I think this incident with the Gresham office just highlights the need for the employment department to get people out of these crowded offices and out into their homes where they can continue to be productive.”
The union and agency will decide together whether the remote work test run is successful.
Despite these changes to the agency, if COVID-19 continues to spread in offices, the distribution of benefits will likely continue to slow.
By Cara Nixon