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Unemployment claims decline, but some still waiting for checks

Filings for initial unemployment claims in Jackson County have been going down since late June, according to the Oregon Employment Department.

From June 27 to July 4, about 400 initial claims for regular unemployment were filed each week — a decrease from the 2,800 claims filed during the worst weeks of the pandemic, according to Guy Tauer, regional economist for OED.

“We’re still at a level above where we were (before the pandemic), but much lower than we saw during the worst weeks of the initial phase of the shutdown,” Tauer said.

From March 21 through July 4, nearly 20,000 initial regular unemployment claims were made in Jackson County, according to Tauer.

Many in the county, however, are still waiting for their unemployment checks to arrive, with some worrying a second shutdown is on the horizon as COVID-19 cases continue to rise.

While the number of initial filings appears to be decreasing, the wait for unemployment checks has passed the 10-week mark for some in the Medford region.

Nichole Friend, who lives with her husband and 8-year-old daughter in Medford, has been waiting over 16 weeks to get benefits after filing her initial claim March 23.

“The system is super broken,” said Friend, a hair stylist at Babe Cave Beauty in Central Point. She said she gave up trying the OED’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance line after calling 759 times. “It’s a waste of time,” she said.

Friend currently works three days a week at the beauty salon, but she is unable to work full-time because she can not afford to pay for child care. She says her husband, Ryan Friend, is still working as a loan officer at Caliber Home Loans, but she worries that if COVID-19 cases continue to rise, another shutdown could be on the way, which could affect his commissions.

“We’re just really nervous here,” she said.

Cara Vanderpool, a single mom who was laid off from her job as a dental assistant in Medford, worries about a possible shutdown, too. She said she finally received her benefits after a frustrating and scary six-week wait.

“It was the most stressful time I had in the last 10 years,” said Vanderpool, who — like Friend — waited on hold for hours with the unemployment call line before being disconnected.

Vanderpool has found a new job, but worries the new COVID-19 safety measures from the governor may signal a future rollback of reopenings.

On July 1, Gov. Kate Brown required face coverings in indoor public spaces statewide in response to a surge in COVID-19 cases. On July 15, Brown expanded face covering requirements to outdoor spaces — when 6 feet of distance can’t be maintained — and limited indoor social gatherings to no more than 10 people.

The current trend in initial unemployment filings for the county depends a lot on whether additional restrictions are implemented to curb the spread of the virus, Tauer said. He said he expects a rise in layoffs and claims if phase two reopening is rolled back.

On Tuesday, the Oregon Legislative Emergency Board approved more than $200 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to help Oregonians struggling financially. The package includes $35 million to fund $500 relief checks for those still waiting on their regular and PUA unemployment benefits.

Kara Birkoski, a Grants Pass resident who has been waiting for her benefits for over 11 weeks, said the relief check would be a big help with bills, household expenses and food.

Birkoski, who worked at a Grants Pass convenience store before the pandemic, lives in a 27-foot trailer with her husband and four children.

“I’m being pretty creative on meals at this point,” said Birkoski, who tends a large vegetable garden outside her trailer to supplement what she buys at the grocery store.

The local food pantry has been helpful, she said, but making the trip, which may entail hours waiting in line, is challenging with kids.

For Birkoski, there are also safety concerns inside the pantry.

“I don’t really want to stay in a building with 50-plus people that may or may not decide to wear a mask,” she said.