The Oregon Employment Department, in partnership with Google, has launched a new online tool it says will make it easier for Oregonians to apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

The Public Unemployment Assistance program is part of the federal CARES Act stimulus package, providing money to people who are unemployed during the pandemic but would not normally qualify for unemployment benefits, such as those who were previously self-employed.

In a news release, the department said the new online form will help the “more than 100,000 mostly self-employed Oregonians who have applied for PUA to get their weekly benefit payments faster.”

On July 8, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that only 23,000 of those people who had applied for PUA funds since the program started in April had actually received the funds they had applied for. State leaders have publicly criticized the unemployment department for failing to get funds to a majority of people who have applied. During a recent virtual town hall, Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, called the department’s performance on the issue “unacceptable.”

On May 31, Gov. Kate Brown asked Oregon Employment Director Kay Erickson to resign over the issue, and appointed David Gerstenfeld as acting director.

“When I took on this role, I made fixing the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance application issue a top priority because we knew it was impacting our ability to get claims processed quickly,” Gerstenfeld said in the July 17 news release about the new online reporting tool. “Although the PUA program was set up in just under a month, the temporary solution, a PDF application, was cumbersome and prone to errors. This new form will fix many of the previous issues and help get benefits into the hands of Oregonians more quickly.”

People who wish to file a claim can visit the Employment Department’s online claim system at secure.emp.state.or.us/ocs4/index.cfm and click on the blue “Pandemic Unemployment Assistance” box to start filling out the form. The form can be used for new claims, or people can use it to re-submit old claims that have not yet been paid out.

According to the news release, the new system will speed up weekly benefit processing by automating the weekly certification process, which staff used to have to process manually. Initial claims will still need reviewed by a claims specialist, but after that, weekly claims will be automatically processed and the money automatically sent.

The online form will also be able to help catch errors that previously held up claims, such as required fields being left blank.

“Important information, such as the COVID-19 reason that makes an applicant eligible for PUA, is required, but has often been missing or left blank on the PDF forms,” the release said.

Forms are available in 15 different languages.

The department also launched an informational website about unemployment benefits, at unemployment.oregon.gov, which is in the process of being translated into other languages.

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