A lawsuit has been filed against the Oregon Employment Department (OED) for alleged violations of federal and state law regarding the dissemination of unemployment benefits. The petition was filed by the Oregon Law Center and Legal Aid Services of Oregon in support of 13 people who claim they experienced severe inadequacy within the system.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, OED has received more than 600,000 claims. Tens of thousands are still waiting for a response. In the effort to prioritize Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) claims, OED Acting Director David Gerstenfeld admits that the department still has some 61,000 applications to process, aiming to do so by August 8, despite having yet to reach its weekly targets.
PUA is a program of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020, which provides unemployment assistance to workers who are ineligible for regular benefits. The suit claims that OED made the application process “impossibly confusing.” Applications for expanded federal PUA and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) benefits, a 13-week extension for those whose benefits ran out, were unavailable for weeks.
Non-English speakers faced even greater difficulty as OED failed to provide online applications in any other languages. The department also failed to provide a language hotline to process requests until recently. The suit alleges that these actions suggest intentional discrimination, violating both Title VI and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Petitioners continued to draw attention to the alleged failings of OED’s response by pointing out the extended process for PUA claims. Oregonians who did not qualify for traditional Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits were made to reapply for PUA benefits after waiting weeks for this accommodation to be made, instead of, the suit points out, “automatically evaluating applicants who are denied UI to see if they are eligible for PUA.”
Another issue claimed in the filing is that the OED backlog is not processed chronologically, meaning that some petitioners could wait months for a response, while others who are able to call and complain may receive help earlier.
In response to the delayed response of OED, the suit calls for specific action. Among the 10 appeals:
- Examine denied UI claims for possible PUA eligibility; process and respond quickly
- Respond to UI, PEUC, and PUA applications no later than 4 weeks after date of application
- Review and respond to backlog chronologically from date of application
- Communicate promptly with applicants to explain the status of the applications received by OED; request more information, advise additional or separate applications, or inform applicant of any possible errors
- Create a more accessible application process by providing phone lines and online applications in multiple languages
By April of this year, Oregon’s unemployment rate was its highest since comparable records began in 1976. In May, Oregon’s unemployment rate declined to 14.2 percent from 14.9 percent. Meanwhile, the national unemployment rate dropped to 13.3 percent in May from 14.7 percent. June unemployment numbers have not yet been released.
By Emily Weninger