UPDATE (5:49 p.m. PT) — Calling in the National Guard ... for unemployment?
Unemployment in Oregon is so grave that the state Employment Department is considering bringing in the National Guard.
“In the past few days, we’ve started discussions with the National Guard about potentially having them help us call people about their claims,” Acting Director David Gerstenfeld said at a press briefing Wednesday.
The tentative idea would be to have the Guard update people with basic information on the status of their claims, so they wouldn’t need training on the intricacies of unemployment compensation.
Gerstenfeld said the Employment Department is also recruiting 100 volunteers from across state government to set aside time every day to make similar calls.
It’s all part of a push to improve the beleaguered department’s image and communication with the public, as tens of thousands of Oregonians wait on claims stuck in the system. That push led to the ouster of director Kay Erickson over the weekend.
In his first press briefing as interim director, Gerstenfeld committed to weekly meetings with media and lawmakers. He gave an update on the backlog of the 38,000 oldest claims for regular unemployment benefits, saying roughly 16,000 of them have now been processed.
Oregon COVID-19 Cases Approach 4,400
The Oregon Health Authority Wednesday reported 4,399 presumptive and positive coronavirus cases in the state.
Presumptive cases are people who have not tested positive for the virus but have symptoms and have had close contact with a confirmed case.
OHA also reported two additional coronavirus-related deaths, bringing the state’s total to 159.
Clark County’s total cases at more than 560
Clark County Wednesday reported six new coronavirus cases, bringing the county’s total to 566. To date, 25 people have died from COVID-19 in Clark County.
According to most recently available data, Washington state has 22,157 confirmed coronavirus cases. The state has seen 1,129 coronavirus-related deaths.
Bob's Red Mill reports outbreak in Clackamas County
The Oregon Health Authority expects to have more information Wednesday on an outbreak of coronavirus at Bob’s Red Mill in Clackamas County. The outbreak investigation began on May 27, OHA said.
Bob’s Red Mill CEO Dennis Vaughn said in a statement that 14 employees at its Milwaukie production facility tested positive for COVID-19.
“All are home to rest and quarantine with full pay. We are hopeful for mild cases and speedy recoveries,” Vaughn said in the statement. “Upon positive testing, we immediately implemented contact tracing. Out of an abundance of caution, additional employees who may have been in contact despite social distancing are also at home to quarantine.”
OHA said the risk to the public from the outbreak is low.
New phone number for unemployment help
Until now, there has been no phone support for the new program, which extends unemployment benefits to independent contractors, gig workers and the self-employed for the first time.
Coastal towns begin to welcome visitors
Many coastal Oregon and Washington towns are relaxing closure orders on tourist lodgings and vacation rentals.
Back in March, many coastal Northwest counties and cities ordered tourist lodgings and campgrounds to close to limit the spread of coronavirus. A soft reopening is now underway.
In recent days, lodgings in Ocean Shores, Long Beach, Lincoln City, Seaside and Cannon Beach got permission to reopen. Washington's San Juan County will again welcome visitors a few days from now, but with hotels and marinas limited to 50% capacity for the next few weeks.
The scenic Makah and Quileute Indian reservations remain closed to outsiders. Olympic National Park is keeping the adjacent coastal park areas also closed to visitors.
Tom Banse of the Northwest News Network contributed reporting to this story.