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Oregon’s unemployed say they’re ‘stuck in limbo’ as state officials struggle after website transition

The Oregon Employment Department partially launched their new online platform, Frances Online, on September 6, 2022. The rollout wrapped up on March 4, 2024.
Alex Hasenstab
The Oregon Employment Department partially launched their new online platform, Frances Online, on September 6, 2022. The rollout wrapped up on March 4, 2024.

The Oregon Employment Department’s new website is supposed to make it easier to communicate with the agency. But some Oregonians seeking unemployment insurance benefits are frustrated over long wait times to resolve application issues and difficulties communicating with the department.

Among them is Harvest Rich. She applied for unemployment benefits in January before the agency completed a multi-year, $106 million website upgrade. Rich used to live in La Grande before her spouse’s health issues led them to move out of state. Because her most recent job was an administrative position with Oregon Health and Science University, she is claiming benefits in Oregon.

Rich believes she and her husband meet all the eligibility requirements for unemployment benefits. Rather than having their application approved — or denied — both of their claims were flagged for further investigation. She still doesn’t know why, and neither have received benefits.

“It puts you in this state of limbo,” Rich told OPB. “You don’t know if you’re going to be denied, if you might be expecting a check in the next week or two — you know nothing.”

The upgrade to Frances Online is supposed to alleviate some of the issues related to communicating with the agency. However, transitioning to the new site has meant jammed customer service phone lines as staff and the public get used to the new technology. OPB has spoken with multiple claimants who are in a similar position as the Riches: they believe they qualify for unemployment benefits, but either their initial claim or a subsequent weekly claim is flagged for a potential eligibility issue.

The Riches and other applicants told OPB they haven’t been able to get through to anyone able to provide information about what’s holding up applications.

In Oregon, a flagged claim goes into an internal research process called adjudication. Representatives with the state employment department say because of the migration to the new online system, they do not know how many claims are waiting to get looked at by an adjudicator. They also lack information on how long it’s taking for claims in adjudication to get resolved.

Overall, the department receives around 30,000 weekly unemployment claims. The agency has 98 adjudicators and nearly 170 employees in the general claims category.

“The new system that we have, it’s not just new technology, it’s also a new process in terms of how we are handling the work,” David Gerstenfeld, director of the Oregon Employment Department, told reporters on Wednesday. “It means that the old reports that we had can’t just transfer over and give us the same kind of insights.”

Gerstenfeld said the agency is working on generating reports with data related to the adjudication process, but was not able to provide a timeline of when those reports will be available. He said the agency will make that information public.

OPB reached out to multiple state legislators in areas with higher than average unemployment or in large population areas. Many reported a small bump in emails about frustrations with the employment department since the website rollout was completed in March.

Rep. Anessa Hartman, D-Oregon City, said her office has heard from at least 10 constituents about issues connected to the employment department. Like Gerstenfeld, Hartman says the problems aren’t with the new website.

“OED’s previous filing system was notoriously outdated, and I’m optimistic that the new Frances Online system will streamline the process for Oregonians, despite initial hiccups for some people with their identity verification,” Hartman wrote in an email to OPB. “However, the vast majority of complaints from my constituents have not been about the online system, but rather the wait times in communications with OED staff or the adjudication process.”

Hartman points to staffing shortages and lack of federal funding as causes for the lengthy adjudication process. In the 2024 session, Oregon lawmakers approved more than $10 million for the employment department to add staff, but those funds won’t flow to the agency until June.

“The kinds of issues that adjudicators process when they’re looking at issues on claims can vary in complexity from things that are pretty simple to things that are highly complicated and involve multiple parties,” Sara Cromwell, deputy director for OED’s unemployment insurance division, said.

Officials with the agency have repeatedly pointed to understaffing and underfunding as part of the reason for long waiting times for cases in adjudication. It was among the issues brought to the surface during the pandemic when thousands of Oregonians suddenly found themselves out of work, applying for benefits and dealing with an outdated computer system and understaffed agency.

“We understand how important it is to have the unemployment insurance benefits to help replace income when people are between jobs, and we don’t take that lightly,” Cromwell said. “We’re working our hardest to provide folks with the services that they need and expect, and constantly striving to do better.”

Director Gerstenfeld told reporters he’s confident things will improve when they are able to add staff members with the state funding expected in June.

Meanwhile, folks like Rich are still in limbo.

“When people qualify for the benefits, they need to be paid in a timely manner,” Rich said. “And if for some reason you are unable to do that, then communicate clearly the reasons why and provide a timeline.”
Copyright 2024 Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Kyra Buckley