SALEM, OR — According to an audit report released today by the Secretary of State, the sudden and drastic increase in unemployment claims brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic strained an antiquated unemployment system, creating financial hardships for many Oregonians whose eligible benefits were delayed several months or longer. The findings are outlined in the report entitled “The Pandemic’s Effects on Oregonians Exposed Risks and Highlighted the Need to Modernize Oregon’s Unemployment Insurance System.”
“The goal of a safety net is for it to be there when you need it,” said Secretary of State Shemia Fagan. “This audit helps explain why Oregon’s unemployment insurance program failed when it was needed most and identifies actionable steps OED can take to make sure help is always available when Oregonians need it most.”
In looking back at 2020, the audit finds several key factors that led to a breakdown in the Oregon Employment Department’s (OED) systems.
- Prior audits in 2012, 2015, and 2020 identified outdated, inefficient, difficult to update systems that hindered the agency’s ability to pay out benefits quickly, especially during economic downturns.
- OED’s phone-based system was overwhelmed by an unprecedented influx in calls. The agency did not have enough physical phone lines or staff to be able to answer all the additional calls they were getting.
- The agency had to staff up quickly and implement multiple new federal programs Congress created in the wake of business closures caused by COVID-19.
OED has addressed some of these shortcomings and had one of the lowest unemployment fraud levels in 2020. Other areas are still in need of improvement.
The audit’s recommendations focus on areas where the OED can improve systems ahead of future surges in unemployment. Key recommendations include:
- Monitor data to identify claims that have not been reviewed within a set period.
- Make use of the modernized IT system to reduce data errors, make use of different communications channels including texting, improve systems for uploading documents online and tracking claims online, continue to make communication available in languages other than English, and more.
- Study the creating of an ombuds office to help claimants navigate the complexities of the UI system.
“Real people were hurt by these delays,” said Secretary Fagan. “Without an ombuds office, people struggling to navigate a complex system had no one to advocate for them. Creating an ombuds office is a practical recommendation to fix a gap in services and help build trust in state government. Ombuds programs currently fill important roles in state government, such as the Office of Small Business Assistance here at the Secretary of State’s office.”