SALEM, Ore. — Weekly unemployment claims are decreasing nationwide, including in Oregon and Washington. However, they remain at record highs.
This comes as many states regain some economic activity during reopening from COVID-19 precautions. Anna Johnson, senior economic analyst with the Oregon Employment Department, said job losses from the start of the pandemic to May totaled 243,500. Historically, that loss is unprecedented.
Oregon’s unemployment rate declined to 14.2 percent in May from 14.9 percent, as revised, in April. Meanwhile, the U.S. unemployment rate dropped to 13.3 percent in May from 14.7 percent in April. Oregon’s April unemployment rate was the state’s highest since comparable records began in 1976.
Brian Kimmel is a freelance videographer with Optic Nerve Productions in Portland. He's still waiting for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA).
"We're definitely struggling," Kimmel said. "It hasn't been very clear as to what the best route for people like myself is...The self employment tax we pay as freelancers is substantial. Now to know there's no support whatsoever having paid that—from the government, from the state, from the feds—has been really frustrating."
The new director of the Oregon Employment Department, David Gerstenfeld, acknowledged Wednesday many people are desperate for help.
"The numbers are not good," Gerstenfeld said. "And they're not just numbers."
The state has received a total of 97,000 PUA claims from Oregonians. About 70,000 of those still need to be processed.
Gerstenfeld explained the different rules and qualifications for PUA and regular unemployment claims don't always match. That means agents have to repeat a lot of the work.
"We are required to touch their application not just once, but many times," Gerstenfeld said.
Gerstenfeld could not give a specific timeline, but said the work would continue to pick up speed with the addition of new resources and staff.
Ruby Howard in Medford is one of the few left waiting for her regular unemployment benefits. She was laid off from her job in March, unrelated to COVID-19.
"Two days after I lost my job, my mom passed away," Howard said. "Every bit of my savings is gone."
Oregon Employment Department said 99% of regular claims are processed, leaving about 550 people, like Howard, waiting.
"I know they're backlogged really bad, and I understand that," Howard said. "But it's been a lot of different answers."
Howard successfully connected several times with the employment department, but has not received a clear answer about why her benefits are on hold.
In the meantime, Howard is working with Worksource Oregon to take classes. She made quilts and face masks to earn a little extra money, but it's not enough for her house payment. She then turned to Oregon unemployment Facebook groups for support.
"Felt like the only place I could go where somebody understood what I was talking about," Howard said.
To meet high demand during the pandemic, the Oregon Employment Department added 138 new phones lines. It plans to add about 150 more in a couple weeks, Gerstenfeld said.
The department trained National Guard members to call applicants to update people on the status of claims.
It also encourages Oregonians to take advantage of free webinars, like this one on June 19, which will answer common questions.
The outlook is similar in Washington state. Although claims were down 2.3% last week, they are still about 500% higher than this time in 2019.
Nationally, claims went down by about 60,000 the week of June 13, to about 1.5 million. That compares to 5.2 million Americans making claims in April.
Meanwhile, many Oregonians like Brian Kimmel are trying to be creative. He is working on a documentary about the pandemic's impact on a local chef. It won't make him any money yet, so he's holding out hope for unemployment benefits.
"Just going on good faith it's going to get corrected, and I'm going to get some assistance at some point," Kimmel said.