Employment Department Leaders Testify in Salem, Run Out the Clock and Avoid Answering Questions

Agency officials read a 45-page PowerPoint to lawmakers, who let them do so. One lawmaker is "incredibly frustrated."

Southeast 28th Avenue. (Wesley Lapointe)

The Oregon Employment Department has an enormous workload because of COVID-19, with just over 400,000 Oregonians filing for unemployment benefits since the pandemic began.

And while the agency says it has responded to more than 90 percent of those filers, that still leaves tens of thousands without jobs or benefits.

Today, the House Business and Labor Committee summoned Employment Department director Kay Erickson and a top aide, David Gerstenfeld, to a Zoom hearing to get some answers why so many people are not getting served.

As The Oregonian reported, Erickson did not initially plan to take part in the hearing but appeared after the daily newspaper asked questions.

One of Erickson's employees, a claims adjudicator named Adam Lane, filed blistering testimony for today's hearing about what he says is a major problem at the agency: Erickson's refusal to let many employees work from home.

Related: Unrest Bubbles to Surface in Overwhelmed Oregon Employment Department

So the stage seemed set for Oregonians to get some answers.

But Erickson and Gerstenfeld took turns reading a 45-page PowerPoint presentation that consumed all of the 60 minutes the committee's chairman, state Rep. Paul Holvey (D-Eugene), had allocated for their presentation.

Erickson explained that her agency, like peer agencies in every state, was unprepared for the avalanche of claims COVID-19 created and is also hampered by 30-year-old technology.

"We were not ready for the unprecedented workload we encountered," she testified. "And thousands of Oregonians have been left wondering if their benefits will arrive in time to pay their bills."

Erickson apologized and she highlighted a new initiative to clear the claims backlog called Project Focus 100.

Erickson also briefly explained that a management-labor group had outlined parameters of a teleworking plan a year ago. She said to expand beyond that program would overtax IT support staff; involve slow and possibly insecure home internet connections; and possibly create privacy and security challenges. In her presentation, she said about 200 of the agencies 600 employees are teleworking.

But Chairman Holvey never asked her a question, nor did he allow other members of the committee to ask questions, saying he would collect their questions later and get responses another day.

One Republican member of the committee, state Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis of Albany, however, issued a statement after the hearing.

"I am incredibly frustrated that lawmakers were not given an opportunity to ask questions of the department's leadership, including how we ended up in this mess, when the agency realized they had a problem, were they given notification of the governor's executive orders, which essentially put tens of thousands of Oregonians out of work overnight, what took them so long to respond, and when—exactly—can unemployed Oregonians expect to receive the benefits they have earned?" Boshart Davis said.

"This is just the latest glaring example of lack of accountability under our state's leadership. This is a deeply human crisis and the state has failed miserably. Oregonians deserve answers."

Updated May 28 with a comment from House Business and Labor Chair Holvey:

"It was important for the legislature to listen to the agency explain the process so we could follow up with informed questions and work together for solutions instead of just complaining," Holvey said in a statement. "In the lead up to the committee hearing, members were given the opportunity to submit questions for the agency – only three committee members (and only one of which was a Republican) besides myself chose to submit questions. It was also made clear to the committee members that there would be an opportunity after the presentation for follow up questions in a public setting.

"I'm unsatisfied with what we heard in the committee and the current response, which is why I asked the Speaker to provide us an additional opportunity for the agency to answer the committee's questions."

Holvey has scheduled that hearing with Employment Department leaders on Saturday, May 30, from nine until noon.

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