On Sunday, David Gerstenfeld accepted an unenviable job: director of the state’s troubled employment agency.
the Oregon Department of Employment failed to get timely payments — and clear benefits information — to thousands of Oregonians out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic.
On Sunday, Governor Kate Brown called on Director Kay Erickson to resign, appointing Gerstenfeld as acting director.
In a call with reporters 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,” Gerstenfeld said. “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 caused the pandemic, it is my responsibility to ensure that we provide people with the benefits to which they are entitled.”
The agency has hired more people to handle the onslaught of benefit claims brought on by the pandemic and is focusing on processing older benefit claims.
At the start of the pandemic, 100 workers were processing claims; now 700 are dedicated to this task.
And since the start of a renewed effort to clear a backlog of claims on Friday, workers have processed about 16,000 of 38,000 unresolved claims for regular unemployment insurance benefits, according to the agency.
As of last week, about 245,000 Oregonians received benefits, but there are still thousands of applications that have not been processed and people are still waiting for money.
Gerstenfeld said he was unable to provide an up-to-date figure on how many people received their benefits, although he said the state paid out about $1.5 billion to Oregonians in the unemployment in the past two months.
The high volume of applicants and federal policy changes that sought to expand benefits overwhelmed the agency’s phone lines and outdated computer system.
Many Oregonians calling the agency to ask about their claims were greeted with busy signals; those who can pass often face long waiting times. In April, some people were wrongly told to revive their claims. Others received confusing or vague letters from the agency.
And the agency was unable to implement an effort by policymakers to secure another week of benefits for Oregonians by removing the typical one-week waiting period.
When asked what he would do to ensure the change in leadership wasn’t just superficial, Gerstenfeld said he was “dedicated” to improving communication.
He said he wanted to be clear about the agency’s problems and that the agency wants to recruit volunteers from other government agencies to call people whose applications have not yet been processed. He said the agency was talking with the National Guard about getting members of the Guard to help with claims as well.
Before becoming acting director, Gerstenfeld headed the agency’s division overseeing health insurance and paid family leave.
And from 2011 to 2019, Gerstenfeld led the agency’s division overseeing unemployment insurance. His time there coincided with Oregon’s long recovery from the Great Recession, and what were at the time “historically high workloads” and a series of new federal programs and changes, he said. he declares.
“I’ve been through that and seen what some of the challenges are and what some of the strategies are that can help,” Gerstenfeld said.
As the pandemic presented challenges on a whole new scale, he said the agency was bringing in retired employees who had been through the recession.
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Claire Withycombe is a reporter for the Statesman Journal. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @kcwithycombe.