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Oregon Employment Department hopes to fix phone mess by year’s end

A year into the pandemic, and the steepest economic fall in Oregon history, placing a phone call to the Oregon Employment Department remains an onerous chore.

Jobless workers spend an average of 70 minutes on hold when calling the agency. Its obsolete computers keep spitting out automated letters instructing laid-off Oregonians to call for help even though they would likely get a much quicker response online.

“We recognize that we need to make it easier for people to get in touch with us,” acting director David Gerstenfeld said on his weekly media call Wednesday. For the first time, Gerstenfeld set a target date for resolving the phone mess.

By the end of June, Gerstenfeld said the department aims to answer 80% of calls within 15 minutes. And it aims to resolve 90% of online inquiries, made through its “Contact Us” form, within a week. Currently, it resolves no more than 21% of those online contacts within seven days.

By year’s end, Gerstenfeld said Oregon wants to return to its pre-pandemic standard, answering 90% of calls within 5 minutes. Currently, only 15% of calls are answered that quickly.

The department hopes new hires, thorough training and a gradual easing of the economic crisis will enable it to get on top of the situation – albeit not for another nine months.

The employment department’s phone lines have been a nightmare since the outset of the pandemic.

Nearly one in eight Oregon workers lost their jobs in the first month of the pandemic, 260,000 altogether. In that time the state’s jobless rate jumped from a historic low of 3.6% to an all-time high of 13.2%.

Callers flooded the employment department seeking help with unemployment benefits. The vast majority of callers encountered only busy signals. Those who did get through spent an average of more than three hours on hold, and even then most calls were never answered.

The employment department resisted implementing a callback system, concluding that the volume of claims was so great that people who asked for a call might end up waiting a very long time.

The huge volume of calls was just part of the problem, though. The employment department and its personnel struggled to adapt to expanded jobless benefits Congress authorized in March. The agency’s antiquated computer system couldn’t keep up either, sending out misleading or incorrect information to unemployed workers – adding to confusion and fueling more calls.

The situation has improved somewhat in the intervening year, but it’s far from resolved since callers typically spend more than an hour on hold and many still can’t get through at all.

The department has hired hundreds of personnel over the past year to process claims and deal with questions and comments. On Wednesday, Gerstenfeld said the department now processes 99.9% of new claims within three weeks.

Faster processing doesn’t always mean faster payments – many claims require additional work – but it’s a big switch from last spring, when some claims were stuck in a bureaucratic purgatory for months at a time.

“We know we’re not yet meeting the service levels we need to but we’re seeing real improvements,” Gerstenfeld said.

It’s bound to be easier to manage jobless claims as the number of unemployed declines. Oregon’s jobless rate was 6.1% in February, less than half what it was at its peak last April. But that figure excludes self-employed workers who aren’t officially on the jobless rolls, but receive benefits through a new program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

And while the economy is recovering as the pandemic recedes, it’s far from clear that the number of unemployed will drop significantly by the end of the year. There has been very little change in Oregon’s unemployment rate since December and the rate of new weekly jobless claims is still more than double what it was before the pandemic.

Since Oregon’s rigid computers won’t allow the employment department to modify the instructions automatically included in mailings, Gerstenfeld said the department will consider adding inserts into the envelopes to suggest people contact the department online rather than try to call.

And he said social media messages and other online tools may help answer claimants’ questions.

Many of the employment department’s claims processors are new to the agency, and many benefits programs are themselves new. So Gerstenfeld said the department will become more responsive as its personnel develops more expertise about how to resolve callers’ questions.

“The thing that we need to do,” he said, “is to get our incredibly dedicated employees more experience across the broad range of ever-changing programs.”