U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley Turns Up the Heat on the Oregon Employment Department

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) sent a pointed letter this afternoon to Kay Erickson, director of the Oregon Employment Department.

Merkley’s letter comes after a May 27 hearing in front of the Oregon House Business and Labor Committee in which Erickson revealed the agency was even further behind paying out benefits than the agency had previously disclosed.

“OED had previously reported a backlog of 38,000 cases, which on its own is a large but understandable number given the volume of claims the state has been inundated with,” Merkley wrote. “But we now know that while OED has processed 366,000 claims, many of them have not actually been paid. As many as 200,000 Oregonians have yet to receive benefits in order to pay bills, buy groceries, pay rent or mortgages, and weather this crisis with dignity.

“There are thousands of Oregonians waiting for answers about the cause for this delay. OED’s lack of proactive communication with the public has rightly created intense frustration.”

Although Erickson leads a state agency and reports to Gov. Kate Brown, much of the money OED distributes comes from the federal government—and Congress dramatically expanded the range and amount of unemployment benefits available in response to the COVID-19 pandemic though the federal CARES Act.

Merkley, a former speaker of the Oregon House, has plenty of experience dealing with state agency directors, and he made plain to Erickson the consequences of her agency’s struggles.

“The intent of the expanded unemployment eligibility and payments I fought for in the CARES Act (H.R. 748) were to help Oregon’s economy remain afloat during this crisis,” Merkley wrote. “When 200,000 families lack these vital funds to pay rent [and] utilities, support local businesses and contractors, buy groceries, and more, this impacts all of Oregon. A bottleneck of hundreds of millions of dollars held up at OED is felt far and wide.”

In addition to a not-so-gentle reminder that he’s watching, the senator, who is running for reelection this year, requested detailed information from Erickson about her agency’s work: when, how and how many claims are getting processed—and paid.

“OED must bring to bear all available resources, including those authorized to you by the federal government, to do whatever it takes to provide Oregonians with these vital benefits in this difficult time,” Merkley concluded. “It has been more than two months since these resources have been approved by Congress. Please update my team and the public on a regular basis about the status of all claims you have received, and what your plans are for rapidly improving OED’s ability to process backlogged claims and payments.”

Erickson is likely to face a similar line of questioning Saturday morning, when she is scheduled to answer questions at a rare weekend interim legislative hearing in front of the House Business and Labor Committee at 9 am.

An Employment Department spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Merkley’s letter.