Riley Hession holds up a letter from the Oregon Employment Department. She filed for unemployment in mid-March, and still has not received her first payment.
Riley Hession holds up a letter from the Oregon Employment Department. She filed for unemployment in mid-March, and still has not received her first payment. COURTESY OF RILEY HESSION

The Oregon Employment Department (OED) has received over 360,000 unemployment claims since March 15 from Oregonians newly out of work because of COVID-19 restrictions—a record high for the state.

But many of those who filed for those benefits have yet to see a dime of unemployment insurance pay. Due to outdated technology and limited resources, OED has only been able to process 64 percent of the claims it’s received in the last two months.

That leaves thousands of unemployed Oregonians without critical financial support during an unstable time. As their bills pile up and calls to the OED result in a perennial busy signal, they are forced to decide how to best spend their dwindling funds.

The Mercury spoke with five Portlanders who lost their jobs in March— but are still awaiting their first unemployment check—about how they’re budgeting amid coronavirus uncertainty, and dealing with the unexpected stress of unemployment. Here are their stories.

The Bartender

Riley Hession lost her job bartending at the People’s Pig on March 15, and filed for unemployment benefits three days later. She still hasn’t received her first payment.

“I wasn’t worried that first week or two,” said Hession, who had never applied for unemployment in Oregon before. “I am six weeks in now. Every week I receive a letter that is on less than half of an eighth of letter paper, and all they say is… ‘We cannot pay the benefits for this week.’”

Hession believes her claim may be delayed because she had voluntarily left her second job, at another Portland restaurant, shortly before she was laid off from People’s Pig and filed for unemployment. She thinks that may have caused confusion as to whether she qualifies for benefits, and is the reason she receives the same letter from OED each week, telling her that “they need more information.”

But despite calling OED “hundreds of times” over the last seven weeks, she’s yet to get through to an OED employee and sort of the confusion.

Hession has relied on her partner, who still received a paycheck until mid-April, to help pay rent and other bills since losing her job and “thousands of dollars in income.” She received her $1,200 stimulus check from the federal government last month, but “that literally went straight to bills.” She’s now down to the final $200 in her bank account.

“And here we are, it’s the beginning of the month again,” Hession said April 30. “I can’t even think two weeks in the future, because if I started to think about that it’d just be really grim.”

Hession, 28, has worked in restaurants and bars since she was 15. She said she’s not expecting her profession to return to pre-pandemic norms anytime soon.

“I’m not going to be able to recover from this,” she said. “And on top of all that, I don’t have faith that the restaurant industry is going to be the same… I don’t think I’m going to be able to go back and be profitable in that job anymore. At least not for a long, long time.”

The Beer Salesman

Since Dylan Singleton was laid off from his beer sales job at Point Blank Distribution on March 22, he’s developed a new daily routine.

“I wake up at 6:30 in the morning and start calling the unemployment office, and I stop calling at 5,” he told the Mercury. “I could basically sing you the hold music because I’ve heard it so much.”

Singleton filed his first unemployment claim on March 27, and soon after received an email telling him he qualified for benefits—but he’s “yet to see anything” from OED. He’s made over 13,000 calls to the unemployment office, and hasn’t been able to speak with a single claims specialist.

He estimates that he has “two weeks, maybe, if I’m lucky” before completely running out of money.

“At this point, I’m lucky to have a roommate who’s been buying groceries,” Singleton said. “All my bills are now behind.”

Singleton has started taking long walks around his Southwest Portland neighborhood to deal with the stress of his situation. During those walks, he puts his phone on auto-dial, puts his earbuds in, and listens as call after call to the unemployment office gets a busy signal.

“I just expect them not to answer,” he said.

The Lyft and Uber Driver

When he wasn’t attending computer science classes at Portland State University, TJ Nuccio was driving for Lyft and Uber to pay his bills. But ride requests dropped off dramatically after Gov. Kate Brown’s stay-at-home order went into effect in March, leaving Nuccio without a stable source of income.

Lyft and Uber “don’t really offer anything” to help drivers with the dip in rides, and because Nuccio wasn’t technically employed with Uber or Lyft, he doesn’t qualify for traditional Oregon unemployment pay. But the CARES Act, passed by Congress in March, funds unemployment pay for gig workers, freelancers, and self-employed people put out of work due to COVID-19 through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program.

PUA payments are paid out by state employment offices—and, already overwhelmed with claims, OED is lagging in PUA payments as well.

Nuccio was asked to file a traditional unemployment application on April 1, then told to fill out a PUA-specific application later in the month. The CARES act provides backpay for any lost income starting in February, but Nuccio is worried about how long he’ll need to wait before those payments come through.

“I waited four weeks after filing the original application, and they say the processing time for this new one is from one week to a month,” he said. “Which means 10 or 11 weeks without any sort of assistance for me.”

In the meantime, balancing his budget is a challenge.

“It’s been a game of postponing whatever payments credit card companies, banks, whatever will allow you to postpone,” he said. “If you’ve been paying off credit cards, in the last couple months you’re just undoing all that progress.”

The state of Oregon received $86 million in federal money in 2009 to update its outdated computer systems. But, more than a decade later, that update still hasn’t happened—something that frustrates Nuccio.

“The communication from the employment department, even considering the circumstances, has been just abysmal,” he said. “It’s passed the point where it’s excusable. … Systems are [supposed to be] there to plan for contingencies as they arise.”

The Tutor

Like Nuccio, Morgan Gauss qualifies for PUA payments as an independent contractor. Gauss was a tutor for Reed College and Portland Community College, but requests for tutoring dropped off after all classes transitioned to online-only in March.

Gauss has also found herself “sitting in processing limbo” as the details of PUA payments have been worked out. She said the one time she was able to talk to a claims specialist on the phone, she was told “they’re still not quite sure how the process is working” for PUA payments.

“I can’t exactly afford to be sitting here hemorrhaging money,” Gauss said. “That’s the situation most of my friends and family have been put in—we might eventually get backpay, [but] we’re not guaranteed to be approved.”

“You can’t really plan anything,” she added. “You look at your budget and say, ‘Well should I pay those bills for things that I don’t think will be shut off right now, or should I save that money just in case I don’t get any more and I need to have that nest egg sitting there in actual cash?’ … The sense of anxiety that comes with this is pretty high and pretty scary.”

The Restaurant Worker

As a laid-off restaurant employee, Jonathan Bowen knows he’s one of many Portlanders in his situation. El Gallo, the Southeast Portland taqueria where Bowen worked, temporarily shut down on March 20, and Bowen filed for unemployment that same day. He still hasn’t gotten his first payment.

“The story that I’m telling you—‘I’ve been unemployed for X-number of weeks, and don’t have any money’—that’s [the same situation for] most people I know,” Bowen told the Mercury. “My community is mostly restaurant people, and we were all laid off around the same time.”

Bowen received a letter soon after filing telling him that his claim can’t be paid because of a problem with his application. But he hasn’t been able to get through to a claims specialist on the phone, so he doesn’t know what the problem is.

“I did everything right,” Bowen said. “I don’t know what happened, but it’s been six weeks as of last Friday, and I don’t have anything.”

A single parent, Bowen rents a two-bedroom apartment for him and his six-year-old son. He’s also paying off student loans, on top of credit card bills, car payments, and auto insurance.

“Until I have money from unemployment, I have nothing,” he said. “It’s pretty dire. My credit score on the other side of this is going to be really rough.”

Bowen said he’s considered looking for a different job, but that he’s hesitant to commit to new work because he doesn’t have childcare lined up for his son.

Like other laid-off Portlanders interviewed by the Mercury, Bowen said he’s frustrated that OED wasn’t prepared for a sudden influx in unemployment claims. Out of 20 laid-off people he knows, he said only two have received unemployment pay.

“When a safety-net system like this doesn’t do the only thing it’s supposed to do… I think there’s going to be a pretty serious backlash,” he said.