Record numbers of Oregonians have lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic but the pace is slowing, the state Employment Department reported Thursday.
About 53,800 people initially filed for unemployment last week, compared with a total of 243,000 during the previous three weeks. The biggest proportion of claims is from people who were employed in the leisure and hospitality sector, including hotels and restaurants.
“But all sectors are seeing record numbers right now,” Anna Johnson, senior economic analyst, said in a department video posted Thursday.
Large-scale public health measures aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 began during the week of March 15. From then through April 4, 58% of unemployment claims were filed by workers with a high school education or less. “This is likely a reflection of the industries that have been hardest hit, such as leisure and hospitality, construction, retail and manufacturing,” regional economist Damon Runberg wrote on Thursday.
He added that workers ages 25 to 34 were particularly hard hit, accounting for 30% of the jobless claims during that period despite making up only 23% of the workforce. About 23% of 35- to 44-year-olds filed claims.
Lincoln and Clatsop counties both lost more than 10% of the local workforce to layoffs during those three weeks. Other significant workforce losses included roughly 8% in Deschutes County; about 7% in Union, Coos, Crook and Tillamook counties; and around 6% in Multnomah, Lane, Jackson and Douglas counties.
The state paid out $97 million in unemployment benefits last week. However, many people have not been able to receive payments due to the agency’s lack of staff and outdated technology.
Despite quadrupling the claims-handling staff, the department answered only 801 of the 2,206 calls received on Wednesday, and the average wait time was about two hours.
Communications Manager Gail Krumenauer said additional staff are still being hired. With record unemployment up through early March, the agency had a small staff handling claims. It has gone from 106 personnel then to 450 now, with a goal of 800.
“It’s hard to overstate what an incredible change this has been in almost no time for Oregonians and for the department,” she said.
Computer systems are being reprogrammed to handle the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which will allow many self-employed, contract or gig workers to receive unemployment benefits for the first time.
But she said it will take 4,000 of hours to reprogram computers to eliminate the one-week wait before people are eligible for benefits. Because the reprogramming will take staff away from existing work, the department is focusing first on getting the most money to the most people.
“The agency has prioritized doing what we can to get the most benefits to the most affected workers, the fastest,” she said in a department video. “We’ve already seen the total benefits paid went from $25 million in one week to about $100 million in the next. That’s real money right now in people’s pockets, so that’s been our first priority.”