Written by Colin Wood
Clumsy business processes, outdated computer systems and staffing shortages have led some Oregon residents to wait more than a year for their unemployment insurance claims to be resolved during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an audit released Wednesday.
The report by Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan found that outdated computer systems used by the state’s unemployment service, which was also audited in 2012, 2015 and 2020, have were quickly overwhelmed when the pandemic landed. A backlog of about 4,200 pre-pandemic claims reached 62,000 in April 2020, just a month into the health crisis, according to state records.
The report describes a series of errors and anomalies created by the decades-old computers, including impossible dates for some claims, such as an adjudication problem detected before its claim was created. More than 1,000 claims took more than a year to process, which may have been caused by incorrect date information, according to the report. About 300 of those cases began in 2019, indicating the pandemic had exacerbated some of the department’s longstanding technical issues in administering unemployment assistance.
“With the decisions in the data we analyzed taking on average more than three months during the pandemic, an additional two-week delay in receiving benefits can have a major impact on the lives of those eligible for unemployment insurance. “, says the report.
The auditor’s analysis also revealed that requests from certain demographics took longer to process than others. Applications from those who identified as Asian took an average of 16 days longer to process than those who did not identify their ethnicity. Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders took 10 days longer. White, black and Hispanic groups, meanwhile, each took four days longer than those who did not identify their ethnicity.
Requests for larger sums of money, usually made by those with relatively lower incomes, were also processed more slowly, another inequity for which Fagan’s office said it was unable to trace the cause. but that the Oregon Department of Employment should investigate further.
“Oregon was one of the first states to be awarded a federal Unemployment Insurance Equity Access Grant, amounting to just over $4.5 million. , in early 2022,” the report said. “OED plans to establish a Fair Access to Unemployment Insurance business unit to conduct outreach at the community level and assess fair access to Unemployment Insurance through routine data analysis to to identify disparities and gaps.”
Auditors also found more than 45,000 duplicate records, some of which may be illegitimate, although the state’s outdated “rigid computer systems” make it difficult and “extremely time-consuming” to validate their legitimacy by cross-referencing with d other departments.
The state is currently updating its unemployment systems, which Fagan’s office says should help address some of the issues noted in the report. He also recommended that the Department of Employment monitor data to ensure requests are resolved quickly, use multiple communication channels – such as text messages – to keep in touch with residents and consider creating a “mediation office” that helps people navigate the process of applying for unemployment assistance.
“Real people have been hurt by these delays,” Fagan said in a press release. “Without an ombudsman’s office, people struggling to navigate a complex system have no one to defend them. The creation of an ombudsman office is a practical recommendation to fill a gap in services and help build trust in state government. Ombuds programs currently fill important roles in state government, such as the Office of Small Business Assistance here in the office of the Secretary of State.