Oregon is in the midst of an unemployment crisis. Not only has COVID-19 forced thousands out of work, but the state's overburdened employment agency has left many of those Oregonians waiting months for their unemployment benefits to kick in.
While the Oregon Employment Department (OED) has made recent progress unclogging the tens of thousands of standard unemployment claims, the state is still facing a massive backlog of claims for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), a new program that provides benefits for people who've been traditionally ineligible for unemployment benefits—like self-employed workers and independent contractors. According to OED, the state has yet to process 70,000 PUA claims.
We've heard a few reasons from state officials as to why OED's system has processed claims at such a glacial pace. Those reasons include the department's woefully outdated computer system. But to get a honest perspective on how OED's handling these claims, we instead turned to one of the hundreds of new workers answering calls and processing benefits for unemployed Oregonians.
Desi Thonis, 32, has worked for OED in the past, helping process paperwork after the 2008 recession. After COVID-19 forced many Oregonians out of work, Thonis applied to help OED process the growing mountain of unemployment claims. She started work on April 27.
Here's a conversation about what her past two months at the troubled department have looked like.
MERCURY: Tell me about your experience processing these claims for OED so far.
THONIS: The first two weeks of the job was just training. But we got up to speed within a couple days. So, we were just sitting around waiting for days—we couldn’t work on anything. And the first claims we were able to work on were missing a lot of information, like social security numbers or birthdays. They were little things we could have fixed with a phone call, but we weren’t trained on phones. I know for a fact that many of those unfinished claims are still not processed. Then, about three weeks ago, we were allowed to answer phone calls.
What are those calls like?
Most people call and say, ‘Look, I got paid for a few weeks, and then it stopped,” or “I made a claim months ago, and have received nothing. What happened?’ I’d check, [and] their claims hadn’t been touched.
As you know, there were thousands of people calling in every day, so we were told to limit each call to 10 minutes. But these are people who have been on hold for hours, who haven’t been paid for months, and they finally have someone on the phone. They’re telling us their whole life story, and I feel like we owe them to listen. It’s impossible. But we were told to just cut them off after 10 minutes and say we’re sending their claim to another person to follow up.
Who were you sending that claim to?
I have no idea! We asked our managers but they just brushed it off, telling us ‘Someone will follow up.”
Wait, so you weren’t sending the claim to anyone?
No. We were told to lie. I know those claims are still just sitting in a database still needing to be processed. I can’t lie to people, so I just started handling them myself.
What do you mean?
I’ve just been staying on the phone and helping fix people’s problems in real time, instead of passing it off to someone else who has to start from square one again. Some of these fixes are pretty simple.
How many claims are you able to fully process each day?
Between 3 or 5. And it has to be something really simple like putting in an application or putting in weekly claims.
Why do you think this is happening?
I think OED is focused more on hiring people to process the claims than getting us prepared to do work. And then there’s the outdated technology that undermines all of our work. We’re letting these claims pile up for weeks.
What are the biggest issues with the technology you’re relying on?
You have to understand, these are systems from the 70s that are not meant to hold all this information. When the system doesn’t like something, it puts a person’s claim on hold for no reason, and we have no idea why. It could be because the claimant has a pension or because they are an immigrant or maybe they didn't check the right box. But we don't know.
How do you fix those issues?
We have to track down a manager, but they usually aren’t available. And when we do ask them for help they don’t know the answers to our questions. It’s extremely frustrating. We have no idea if those stuck claims are ever addressed. I’ve gotten used to telling people “I don’t know.”
What kind of response do you get to that?
People usually start to cry or yell at me. We get cussed out. Some people just sound like they’re giving up. They tell me things like, 'I don’t know how to feed my kids, I can't pay rent, I don't have anything.' I’ve received at least three calls threatening suicide in the last few weeks. A woman told me she was going to get drunk and shoot herself in the head.
My coworker got a really scary call from a man who sounded suicidal, who said he was hiding and that he was scared and that he needed his money. She reached out to our manager to ask how to handle it, and he told her to call 911. That's the protocol. But she didn't know if this guy had a weapon, and his paperwork noted that he was a Black man. This is during a time when people are protesting police killing Black men... we didn't feel comfortable calling the police on him.
What kind of training did you receive on handling calls from extremely distressed people?
None. They didn’t give us any training or tips. Fortunately, I have experience with this kind of customer service work, so it’s easier for me to talk to people… I’m pretty great at dealing with angry calls. But that’s not the same as training. I have one coworker who used to work at a mental health hotline, so we sometimes hand the phone over to her when things get serious. We’ve had to do our own research to find suicide hotline information to share.
How is this environment impacting morale?
Oh, it’s awful. A lot of people are quitting.
What keeps you from quitting?
I really do care about all of the people going through this right now. This is a difficult time, and I feel like I can help. I want people to know exactly what’s going on. They deserve to know.
I will say, I have worked for government offices for a number of years and don’t see myself ever going back after this.
How are you, personally, taking care of yourself right now?
I do kickboxing, I run on a treadmill... it helps. At work, I have to remember that these people are not mad at me. I drive home crying sometimes. I’m angry all the time.
What advice do you have for people who are still waiting to receive their unemployment benefits?
Keep calling until someone answers. Hopefully that person will get a good representative who will follow up with them. That’s the only way any of their claims will be processed. We aren't able to go back to earlier claims unless someone calls us about it. I know this is painful, this is frustrating, and I hate it, I really do. But keep calling.