As the Oregon Employment Department (OED) continues to be overwhelmed with unemployment benefit claims, and the federal government quibbles over renewing coronavirus relief funds, Portlanders who lost work back in March are still struggling to get by—and full of questions about their futures.
In early May, the Mercury interviewed five Portlanders who had been laid off or were under-employed because of COVID-19’s economic impacts. They told us about delayed unemployment checks, impossibly long call wait times at the Oregon Unemployment Office, mounting unpaid bills, and uncertainty as to when they’d be able to work again.
We recently caught up with three of these Portlanders (the other two did not respond to follow-up requests). While each of their circumstances have changed for the better since early May, they’re still dealing with unpredictable state and federal unemployment benefits, and difficult choices to make around working and spending.
And they still aren’t sure what the coming weeks and months will bring.
“We’re just waiting for more things to open up.”
Dylan Singleton lost his beer sales job at Point Blank Distribution in March, and spent the following three months calling the OED thousands of times a day, attempting to get his missing unemployment checks sorted—to little avail.
Singleton later learned he had entered one digit of his Social Security number incorrectly on his original application. Because the OED is facing an unprecedented number of applications, and is processing them on outdated software, that sole error was enough to delay Singleton’s benefits indefinitely. Singleton corrected his mistake, but still hasn’t received a check.
“I haven’t heard anything else from [OED],” Singleton told the Mercury in late July. “I haven’t received a letter in the mail, no email or anything.”
But Singleton has found another source of financial relief: In June, Point Blank rehired him as a truck driver. The new position earns less money than his previous role as a salesperson, but he’s made enough to pay off his most pressing bills and start paying his roommate back for rent she covered while Singleton was unemployed. His employer told him he’s first in line to be promoted to a salesperson when a job opens up—but they need to wait for demand from restaurants and bars to increase.
“We’re just waiting for more things to open up,” he said. “With all these big scares, restaurants and bars are worried about continuing with business… Especially the smaller restaurants and bars I’ve been in contact with, they are very hesitant with ordering beer, because they don’t know if they’ll have to close down and throw things away again.”
Singleton still hopes to receive his three months’ worth of unemployment benefit back pay from before he got rehired by Point Blank. He blames the delay on the “archaic computer system” that OED failed to update when it had the chance.
“I work Tuesday to Friday,” he said, “so I’ve been spending my Mondays calling them and trying to figure out what’s going on.”
“I’m running into walls left and right.”
Riley Hession lost her job at a Portland restaurant in March, as soon as it became clear restaurants would need to close to in-person dining. But after waiting over 10 weeks, her initial unemployment claim was denied—because she had voluntarily left a second restaurant job right before the pandemic began. Hession said she quit that second job because she’d started making more money at the first one, and never would’ve quit it if she knew the dire situation she’d soon find herself in.
“I didn’t have a clear answer for a long time,” Hession said in a recent interview with the Mercury. “They had to do it by the book, which I think is so wrong given the current emergency. I was devastated.”
But after another weeks-long process that included conflicting information from different OED claims processors, Hession managed to qualify for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), a federally funded program that provides relief for people who don’t qualify for traditional unemployment, but still lost wages due to the coronavirus.
Hession almost didn’t qualify, however, because she initially gave the wrong answer to this confusingly worded application question: “Are you unable to reach your place of employment because of the quarantine imposed as a result of the COVID-19 public health emergency?”
Hession initially answered “no,” reasoning that she no longer had a place of employment. After being denied once and calling the office countless times, a PUA claims specialist from OED finally told her she should mark “yes,” because her previous employer had to close its doors.
“I can’t imagine how other people are interpreting this question, because it’s so bizarre,” Hession said. “This was two months in and no communication. I’m having to extract all this information myself, and I’m running into walls left and right.”
Hession changed her answer, and finally started receiving benefits in late June. On one day alone she received thousands of dollars in back pay at once via direct deposit. She’s used those funds to catch up on bills, and lives on the benefits she continues to receive—the state minimum of $205 a week from PUA, plus $600 per week from the federal CARES Act. But the CARES Act boost expired at the end of July, and Democrats in Congress are facing pushback from Republicans who are reluctant to extend it.
Hession is immunocompromised, meaning she’s at greater risk of experiencing complications from COVID-19. Hession said that if the CARES Act isn’t renewed, her plan is to “start hitting the bricks harder again for a job—but I don’t really know how that’s going to work.” The restaurant industry is struggling due to closures and a recession, and Hession worries she’d get a job waiting tables only to soon lose it and “be back at square one, not receiving benefits.”
“I don’t know what the heck’s going to happen in the next couple months,” she said. “So the plan is to save as much as I can, and play it by ear at this point.”
“Nobody can live on $205 a week.”
After losing work as a college tutor when the pandemic hit in March, Morgan Gauss finally started receiving PUA payments in June.
“It just showed up in the mail one day—I got about 15 [back pay] checks all at once,” Gauss said. “I think I cried a little bit when I watched all those checks slide into my mailbox, because it was finally there.”
Gauss receives $205 a week from PUA—and was receiving the weekly $600 from CARES until it expired at the end of July. Faced with uncertainty about what’s coming next, and also unable to work outside her home because of a compromised immune system, she’s started taking measures to ensure she spends as little money as possible.
“I’ve gone to the extreme of just sitting with a small fan on me with the lights turned off just to cut down on electricity bills,” she said. “I’ve changed my diet, I’m not getting takeout, not buying as many personal products. [But] when all you can do is sit inside your house all day, there’s not much you need to worry about except keeping your lights on and keeping your rent paid.”
Gauss’ PUA checks come at unpredictable times—some weeks, they arrive right on time, while other times they arrive several weeks late. She said she “can’t complain” because she’s at least getting money, but she doesn’t know what she’ll do if Congress doesn’t pass a second stimulus package that includes a CARES extension.
“If they don’t extend the CARES benefits—nobody can live on $205 a week,” she said. “It’s sure as hell better than zero dollars a week, I’ll give them that. But I just don’t see how anyone can survive.”