The COVID-19 virus outbreak put unexpected pressure on an array of state and federal agencies, and in at least one case, the compression created leaks that sprouted into wide fissures.
Take the Oregon Employment Department’s failure regarding the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program as an example.
The federal program — rolled out in March — was just one of a series of relief packages created to help plug the unprecedented gaps created by the COVID-19 virus epidemic. Essentially, the program was an expansion of employee insurance that covered self-employed individuals and contract workers.
Oregon, though, didn’t even begin accepting Pandemic Unemployment Assistance applications until late April. The Oregon Employment Department did not have a phone number for those seeking the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance until this month, and while it added more phone lines, callers were still expected to wait more than an hour and a half for assistance.
That isn’t the most troubling piece of the whole equation, though. That’s because instead of processing the claims in a rapid manner — or even in a slow, but methodical fashion — the OED admitted recently it had a backlog of more than 70,000 unprocessed claims. That, in turn, means that thousands of Oregonians who qualified for help didn’t get it.
The Oregon Employment Department also proclaimed it would roll out a new program, dubbed FOCUS PUA, to better focus resources and staff to clear out the backlog of unprocessed claims. The state estimates it can administer 5,000 claims in the first week of the program and that its weekly processing numbers will grow by 2,500 per week thereafter, enabling the state to overcome the current backlog of PUA claims within six or seven weeks.
The state is also apparently cooperating with Google to build a web-based PUA application system. That system is expected to roll out in early July.
All of that, of course, is good news.
What remains troubling, however, is the failure of a critical state agency to handle this specific program in a professional manner. Some latitude can be given when the problem is framed against the abrupt disarray created by the COVID-19 virus and the governor’s subsequent order to close the state to stop its spread. Tried and true methods, after all, were disrupted when the state’s civil servants were ordered to work from home. That type of sudden disorder created new challenges for civil servants everywhere.
Yet, the state began to open in mid-May. While the wheels of bureaucracy were always slow, for the employment department to have dropped the ball — creating a massive backlog — on this specific problem is shocking.
Oregon taxpayers deserved a better accounting on this issue. They didn’t get it. Lawmakers — including locally elected state senators and representatives — should be asking why.