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It took 19 months, but you can finally reach the Oregon Employment Department by phone

Got a question about your jobless benefits? Try calling the employment department.

That was one of the least productive things you could do for the first several months of the pandemic, when the Oregon Employment Department was essentially inaccessible by phone.

New state data, though, shows that calls are finally getting answered.

“We’re not satisfied because we’re not providing the level of service that we want, but we have made very significant improvements,” said David Gerstenfeld, the employment department’s acting director, in a media call last month.

The employment department says it’s now answering more than 90% of calls within 15 minutes. Nearly 80% of calls are answered within five minutes. That’s within spitting distance of the state’s goal of answering 90% that quickly.

To appreciate that milestone, think back to the early months of the pandemic.

Inundated by a flood of newly laid-off workers, and hobbled by obsolete technology – some of which dates to the Reagan administration – the employment department simply couldn’t handle the volume of phone calls.

The vast majority of calls never connected at all. Those who did get put on hold spent an average of 3 ½ hours waiting – usually without anyone at the other end ever picking up. Some waited on hold for seven hours or more.

Severe phone trouble lasted for well over a year, into last summer, delaying aid for thousands of people who were trying to resolve what were often minor problems caused by the state’s rigid computers.

Oregon was among the slowest states to pay out unemployment assistance during the depths of the pandemic, when the need was greatest.

“We know how difficult it was and how all of our communication channels were completely overwhelmed,” Gerstenfeld said.

Oregon had sought to resolve its communication problems by July but missed its targets – a setback the employment department blamed on the tight labor market.

Things began to improve sometime in the past two months, although it’s not clear exactly when.

Oregon doesn’t have any phone call statistics from the start of August through the end of September. The employment department blames technical problems for the missing data.

But the situation has undeniably changed. In addition to more accessible call centers, the department says it is resolving 95% of online inquiries within seven days. As recently as July, it took an average of two weeks to address issues raised through the department’s “contact us” form.

The department says new hires, additional training and improved internal processes account for much of the change.

But the 13,000 calls the department fielded last week is fewer than the 14,000 it received in the first week of May, when hold times were much longer. So, a bigger factor may be that far fewer people are calling.

Oregon’s jobless rate was 4.9% in August, down from 13.2% in April 2020.

The state is paying benefits to just about 32,000 people a week now, down from nearly 360,000 a week in the pandemic’s early days – and well over 100,000 a week as recently as September, before expanded federal benefits expired.