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Emergency relief checks are justified

As the Oregon Employment Department struggles to process record numbers of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims, legislative leaders are calling for an emergency distribution of $500 checks from CARES Act funds to help jobless workers who have applied for benefits but have yet to receive any. This is an appropriate use for that money, but the state should have done a better job of responding to the demand brought on by the shutdown in the first place.

On Wednesday, David Gerstenfeld, the Employment Department’s acting director, told news reporters his agency is still working to process 61,000 initial applications to meet its self-imposed “PUA push” goal by Aug. 8. The department has still not met its weekly processing targets. At the same time, Employment Department workers are testing positive for COVID-19 — seven since the beginning of April, five of those in the past week at four different locations, Gerstenfeld said.

More than 98,000 people have applied for PUA benefits since late April, and only 23,000 of those have been paid. Gerstenfeld said applicants whose claims have not yet been processed should expect to wait until at least Aug. 8 to see any money, and even those who have begun receiving benefits may see stops and starts, because the department has to manually process weekly PUA claims.

That’s even more reason to allocate some of the federal CARES Act dollars to give anxious workers some relief while they wait. The proposal advanced by legislative leaders would direct the Department of Administrative Services to develop a simple process for Oregonians to apply for the emergency checks, which would not count against their unemployment benefits.

It’s understandable that a state agency found itself overwhelmed by the sudden flood of applications when the governor ordered most businesses to close and after Congress approved extra jobless benefit payments and included gig workers, contract workers and the self-employed who are not usually eligible. What’s not understandable is why the Employment Department’s decades-old computer system still has not been upgraded with money the Legislature approved in 2009.

If that work had been done, call-center employees might be working from home rather than contracting COVID-19 on the job. And tens of thousands of Oregonians could already be receiving the unemployment benefits to which they are entitled.

Senate President Peter Courtney was right when he said of the emergency assistance request, “This isn’t a fix, this is a Band-aid.”

A single $500 check won’t pay anyone’s rent or replace missing jobless benefits. But it’s better than nothing, and it’s the least the state can do for people thrown out of work through no fault of their own.