The good and bad news for Kay Erickson: She can now apply for unemployment benefits.
On May 30, Gov. Kate Brown fired Erickson, director of the embattled Oregon Employment Department. Agency directors come and go in state government, but what made this decision unusual was both the context—more than 445,000 Oregonians have filed for unemployment during the COVID-19 pandemic—and the impetus.
Erickson's firing came after a fusillade of angry communications from senior Democratic members of Oregon's congressional delegation. That's unusual, because although much of the money the state is (slowly) handing out comes from the feds, the Employment Department is a state agency, and Erickson reported to Brown, who hired her in 2016. It's particularly unusual given that Brown and the federal elected officials who pressured her are all Democrats.
Pacific University political science professor Jim Moore says he can't recall members of the congressional delegation ever demanding the head of a state agency director.
"It is very, very rare," Moore says. "I don't recall another instance in which this has happened."
Here's a timeline of key events:
March 27: President Donald Trump signs the $2 trillion CARES Act, a COVID-19 relief bill, much of which U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden negotiated, including greatly augmented and expanded unemployment benefits.
May 20: Wyden and U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer put Erickson on notice they are unhappy: "The lack of communication and transparency surrounding their benefits is what makes Oregonians overwhelmed and frightened," they write in a letter.
May 27: In a video interview with WW, Wyden reiterates he's hearing a lot of complaints from unemployed Oregonians. "Ron, you were the guy who put together these extra benefits, but I can't get them," he says a constituent told him.
May 27: After maintaining near-complete silence, Erickson makes a much anticipated appearance before the Oregon House Business and Labor Committee. She discloses a much bigger backlog than previously known but does not take questions.
May 29: U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley joins the chorus. "There are thousands of Oregonians waiting for answers about the cause for this delay [in paying benefits]," Merkley writes to Erickson. "OED's lack of proactive communication with the public has rightly created intense frustration."
May 30: Wyden has seen enough and demands Erickson's resignation about an hour before she's due to finally answer state lawmakers' questions. "This litany of incompetence and unresponsiveness has hit the breaking point," Wyden says.
May 30: After the legislative hearing, Brown calls Erickson and verbally requests her resignation from her $185,676-a-year job. "Problems at the department demand an urgent response," Brown explains in a statement the next day.