Skeptical members of the House Business and Labor Committee took turns this morning firing questions at Oregon Employment Department director Kay Erickson and her top deputy, David Gerstenfeld.
Erickson expressed contrition for the large number of unpaid jobless claims and the immense amount of time some callers are spending on hold or waiting for responses from her agency.
"We hear your frustration," she told lawmakers. "We simply don't have enough people to answer the phones.…That is a failure on our part."
For three hours, lawmakers pushed for answers on the agency's sizable backlog and suggested solutions. State Rep. Greg Barreto (R-Cove) asked whether the agency could either advance payments to applicants with approved claims or work with a private sector partner who could make loans against anticipated benefits.
Erickson said existing rules prohibit that.
"We don't get to make the rules, the federal Department of Labor does," she said. "Ultimately, these dollars are monitored and audited by the federal government. If we don't follow the rules, we will not be eligible to provide these programs."
Rep. Paul Evans (D-Monmouth) suggested using National Guard troops to help with the massive number of unreturned phone calls.
Erickson and Gerstenfeld reiterated that the agency has assigned its most experienced staff to clear the backlog of the 38,000 oldest claims by June 12.
Although the agency has increased its staffing from 100 to 700, they conceded a shortage of trained staff continues to hamper paying claims and timely communication with those seeking benefits.
Two lawmakers, Reps. Brian Clem (D-Salem) and Julie Fahey (D-Eugene), drilled down on a sore point for Employment Department staff: the inability to work from home. Clem pressed Erickson for details on how the issue had affected the agency's staffing levels—and therefore it's ability to process claims.
The numbers Erickson provided were significant: She said 29 employees had been denied requests to telecommute. Of those, seven took leave and 22 are reporting to the office full or part time. But those numbers don't capture the full impact on the agency, which entered the pandemic with about 100 employees.
Erickson testified that 217 employees have taken emergency paid sick leave for an average of about 1.5 weeks each; and another 86 employees have taken other forms of paid leave for an average of 2.5 weeks each.
That's a lot of missed work at a time when the agency is overwhelmed by more than 400,000 claims since the pandemic began.
Erickson said that a variety of factors make telecommuting problematic for staff handling claims. Chief among them: the agency's reliance on an archaic mainframe computer system. She explained that her staff rely on multiple systems and multiple screens to handle claims. In addition, there are broadband capacity and security issues involved in letting employees work from home.
Rep. Fahey expressed skepticism, noting that other state employees who handle sensitive, complex personal information, such as Department of Revenue employees, work from home.
"Given the numbers of people who are out on leave and that trained, experienced staff are the biggest need," Fahey said, "I just truly don't understand the number of people who are out [on leave]."
Clem expressed similar concerns and urged Erickson to be more creative.
"I'm having trouble seeing our way forward here," Clem said. "I hope we can find a way to get [Employment Department] people back on the job.
Reps. Shelly Boshart Davis (R-Albany) and Daniel Bonham (R-The Dalles) prodded Erickson on her agency's lack of preparation for the pandemic. Boshart Davis noted that over the past decade, critical audits had highlighted weaknesses that went unfixed.
And Erickson acknowledged in response to a question from Bonham that the agency had been sitting on most of the $86 million it received from the federal government in 2009 for a technology upgrade—although she said she's on the cusp of signing a contract to put that money to work.
Rep. Jeff Barker (D-Aloha) expressed the greatest level of dissatisfaction.
"I'm just very frustrated listening to this," Barker said. "What I see is just a huge gap between what people need and what they are getting."
Barker echoed a call earlier today from U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) for a change at the top. "It just seems to me that somebody else needs to take over the leadership of the department," he said.
Erickson did not respond to his observation.