Imagine this: You’re one of the countless millions of people who lost their job due to covid hysteria. You apply for unemployment through the state. After months of delays, frustration, ghosting, and perpetual busy signals when you try to call, someone finally gets to your claim. They ask you a few basic questions, they verify a few things, then approve you for unemployment checks, including the back pay for all of the months you spent waiting. You finally get a pile of checks. You’re able to catch up on rent, catch up on bills, and catch up on other household and living expenses.
Then the state sends you a letter saying “Oops, we screwed up. Now you have to pay us back all of that money we gave you. Plus interest.”
That’s the nightmare that approximately 1500 people in Oregon are experiencing.
The acting director of the Oregon Employment Department told KOIN 6 News over the phone that he estimated about 1,500 people are in a situation where they were paid benefits but now have to pay them back for one reason or another.
That’s the case for Sophia McIntosh, who applied for regular unemployment benefits in March. In July, she said 14 checks from the Oregon Employment Department showed up in the mail all at once. She said she used the money to pay bills and thought everything was fine until she got a letter in the mail on November 4 saying she has to pay back $4,800.
This completely shocked McIntosh because before this, she had no idea her claim was denied or that she needed to file an appeal.
“You gave me the money, you told me I was approved, how was I supposed to know?” McIntosh said. “I physically cannot pay this back, that’s why I was asking for unemployment in the first place, cause I didn’t have money.”
This is only the latest example of the sheer incompetence of Oregon’s brave and stunning leadership. This past spring, they started garnishing legitimate unemployment checks to pay back prior over payments that were doled out due to errors by the state. Keep in mind this was at the peak of the Covid layoffs. Oregon Public Broadcasting reported:
There was good news and bad news when Cameron Duskin lost his dishwashing job in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The good news: He quickly qualified for unemployment benefits.
The bad news: The state took them.
“I’m getting zero dollars and I don’t know when we’re going back to work,” he realized.
Among the hundreds of thousands of Oregonians caught in the unemployment crisis is a group of people whose benefits the state is deliberately withholding. The Oregon Employment Department believes these people were overpaid during a prior period of unemployment. So now the department is keeping their weekly benefits, despite a deadly pandemic that has driven the state’s unemployment rate to its highest level since the Great Depression.
In Beaverton, Duskin panicked. Even though the department was keeping his regular state benefits, he had started receiving an extra $600 a week from the federal CARES Act.
Then, he found out the state planned to take half of that too.
After losing a job in the Great Recession, Cameron Duskin worked part-time at a call center while collecting unemployment. In 2011, the state accused him of fraud. He swears he doesn’t know why.
“Obviously I did something wrong, that’s what they claimed,” he said.
In his file of unemployment papers is a finding of willful misrepresentation. The state said he was not truly “available for work” while claiming benefits because he wasn’t willing to work all the hours and days customary to his occupation. Duskin says he never turned down a full-time job.
“I might have made a human error, but I was unaware of it until a year and a half later when they told me,” he said.
The “error” came with a price-tag: Duskin was to repay $14,684 in unemployment benefits plus a $2,200 fine.
Over the years, that debt grew even bigger, because the state of Oregon charged interest.
Duskin says his call center wages were garnished. When he became a dishwasher at Red Robin, those wages were garnished too. He never made enough money to cover the interest, let alone the principal.
In January 2020, the Oregon Department of Revenue sent him a letter. It had been charged with collecting the debt, which stood at nearly $30,000.
In Tigard, 63-year old Penny Walker waited nine weeks to hear the fate of her unemployment claim. Only then did she learn she had to forfeit eight weeks of checks because of a prior overpayment.
“It’s been pure hell,” she said. “Pure hell.”
After nine weeks of waiting, Penny Walker finally got her unemployment claim approved.
The denial letters week after week took a toll on her. She burned through savings.
“I’m a very optimistic kind of a go-getter kind of a gal,” she said. “But my emotions — I just can’t even function sometimes day-to-day. I look at my family, I’m like how am I gonna pay my mortgage?”
Walker won’t be paid for the two months she spent in limbo. She just learned she is disqualified from receiving eight weeks of checks, as a penalty for a one-time overpayment in 2018.
Walker knew about the overpayment and tried to appeal it. She says she worked out a payment plan with the state and was $70 away from completing it when the pandemic hit and she lost her job again. In Oregon, once a person is back on unemployment, penalties and offsets automatically kick in.
Just last month 40,000 people were forced to pay back the $300 August bonuses, because they hadn’t checked the right box on the Employment department website. Yet state officials approved the people anyway, only to renege on the checks, even though those people likely qualified in the first place. The Oregonian reported:
Oregon mistakenly paid $300 weekly unemployment bonuses to tens of thousands of people who didn’t certify they were eligible for the payments, and now the state might have to recoup that money – even from some people who are actually eligible to receive it.
The confounding situation is apparently yet another mess caused by the Oregon Employment Department’s obsolete computer systems.
The technology, which dates to the 1990s, delayed jobless benefits for hundreds of thousands of Oregonians during the pandemic. The state received $86 million in federal money to fund a computer upgrade back in 2009 but a decade of dysfunction in the employment department prevented the work from ever taking place.
Oregon began paying out the money in late September. However, employment department Director David Gerstenfeld said Wednesday that the state erroneously sent the money to as many as 40,000 people who hadn’t certified their eligibility. Most of those people are eligible, he said, but hadn’t actually certified.
On his weekly media call, Gerstenfeld blamed the problem on “inadvertent issues” and “unintended consequences” related to programming the state’s antiquated mainframe computers. He said the employment department is calling people who received the erroneous payments to encourage them to certify their eligibility so they can keep the $300 payments. (You can certify online. Scroll down to “Lost Wages Assistance.” People who qualified for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, for self-employed workers, certified their eligibility when they applied for that program and do not need to re-certify.)
In fact, it’s recently come to light that Oregon’s Employment Department woes are much worse than what has previously been known, and officials are likely covering up the truth. The Oregonian reported on November 2nd:
The number of unemployed Oregonians stuck in the backlog for adjudicating claims may be more than twice as large as the state has said, according to a deposition filed Friday as part of a class-action lawsuit.
In weekly calls with the media, the Oregon Employment Department has claimed that it is steadily whittling down the adjudication backlog from 52,000 at the end of September to about 42,000 in late October. In an Oct. 16 deposition filed in connection with the lawsuit, though, unemployment insurance division director Lindsi Leahy said the actual number may be as high as 96,212.
Oregon Public Broadcasting first reported on the startling discrepancy Friday. Employment department Director David Gerstenfeld said last week that the state hopes to clear its adjudication backlog by the end of the year. However, the higher tally suggests that at the current pace of adjudicating claims the work may not be done until sometime well into 2021.
The Oregon Law Center sued the employment department last summer on behalf of non-English speakers and self-employed workers who had already waited months for their benefits. The suit doesn’t seek monetary damages; rather, it asks the court to compel the employment department to promptly resolve backlogged claims.
Thousands upon thousands of people were left waiting for months for their claims to be processed. The phone number was always busy. It was next to impossible to get through to anyone. Governor Kate Brown fired the Employment Department director in late May, but that didn’t seem to solve anything. In June, the Portland Mercury reported that Newly hired call center workers were evidently told to lie to claimants, and that they’re supposed to hang on up callers after 10 minutes, regardless of how much progress has (or hasn’t) been made in processing the claim. No one knew who, if anyone, was following up with any of the callers.
The usual scapegoat in all of this is Oregon’s antiquated computer system, with some components dating back to the 1980’s. The state received $86 Million from the feds in 2009 to upgrade the computer systems, but they never got around to it. And the citizens are suffering the consequences.
Oregon is entirely run by democrats, as it has been for the past three decades. This comes from the party that purports to care about the working class, the downtrodden, the poor. And now the state is failing to serve the poor, then seizing money from the poor, due to the state’s own mistakes, at a time when the poor are on the brink.
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