In an unusual move, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) this morning called for the resignation of Kay Erickson, director of the embattled Oregon Employment Department.
"Simply put, this litany of incompetence and unresponsiveness has hit the breaking point," Wyden said in a statement. "As a United States senator working to get federal unemployment benefits to Oregonians, this state situation must get fixed immediately, and I am calling for the resignation of the Employment Department director as an essential step to begin that long-overdue fix on behalf of unemployed Oregonians."
Wyden's move comes less than an hour before members of the Oregon House Business and Labor Committee are scheduled to grill Erickson over the failure of her agency to pay unemployment benefits to Oregonians in a timely fashion or adequately communicate why it cannot.
"Oregonians thrown out of work through no fault of their own deserve a state Employment Department capable of responding quickly and competently to their urgent needs during this economic and public health crisis," Wyden continued.
"Over the past weeks and months, it has become painfully clear that the Oregon Employment Department leadership has totally failed to meet these Oregonians' needs or to support its own dedicated employees working to process claims."
At a May 27 hearing in front of the Business and Labor Committee, at which Erickson and her top deputy read a 45-page PowerPoint presentation to lawmakers and took no questions, Erickson admitted that fewer than half of the more than 400,000 Oregonians who have filed unemployment claims had received benefits.
That admission seemed both to surprise and infuriate Oregon's U.S. senators. Yesterday, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) demanded answers from Erickson in a letter. This morning, Wyden, who was one of the Democrats' lead negotiators in putting together the federal CARES Act, which included an unparalleled expansion of unemployment benefits, boiled over.
His call for Erickson's resignation is unusual because, although most of the money the Employment Department will pay out comes from the federal government, Erickson runs a state agency and reports to Gov. Kate Brown, not Wyden. Brown hired Erickson to run the agency in 2016.
"While all states have faced challenges in implementing expanded benefits, Oregon's problems have persisted far too long with far too much pain inflicted on unemployed Oregonians," Wyden concluded.
"Adding insult to injury, too many unemployed Oregonians remain unable even to get through to the state Employment Department for answers to their most basic questions. The department's persistent lack of transparency and apparent unwillingness to communicate with Oregonians in real time has added to Oregonians' understandable confusion and frustration."
Neither Erickson's nor Gov. Brown's office could be reached for comment.