Work search requirements will resume in stages for more than 100,000 Oregon workers who receive unemployment benefits, now that the economic downturn triggered by the coronavirus pandemic is easing.
But unlike more than 20 states — all of them with Republican governors — Oregon has no plans to stop supplemental federal unemployment benefits before their scheduled end on Sept. 4.
“The pandemic-related federal programs have created a lifeline for people whose livelihoods were affected by COVID-19,” said David Gerstenfeld, acting director of the Oregon Employment Department, in a weekly conference call with reporters.
The supplemental federal benefit amounts to $300 per week. It is in addition to regular benefits drawn from the state unemployment trust fund, which comes from employer contributions, and special federal benefit programs created during the pandemic.
Some states will start opting out of the federal benefits as soon as June 12.
At the onset of the pandemic, when they received an avalanche of claims, Oregon and other states did suspend legal requirements for people to search for work, be available for work and register with state workforce agencies as conditions for receiving benefits.
The pandemic emergency declared by Gov. Kate Brown almost 15 months ago, renewed every 60 days, is scheduled to expire June 28. Although Republican minorities want the Oregon Legislature to repeal her orders now — Democratic majorities have declined so far to take any steps to do so — Brown has said “I fully intend to reopen our economy” by the next deadline.
As her benchmark for dropping most pandemic restrictions, Brown has set 70% of Oregon’s population age 16 and older getting at least one vaccination. She says she thinks that goal is achievable by June.
Oregon’s statewide vaccination rate against COVID-19 for eligible people was 62.7% as of Thursday, May 20. But the rate varies from a low of 32.5% in Lake County to a high of 67.6% in Benton County. Multnomah and Washington counties have met or exceeded 65%; Clackamas County trails at 58.5%.
Gerstenfeld said in advance of any potential action, people receiving unemployment benefits will be notified about registering with the agency’s iMatchSkills system for jobs and meeting either face to face or virtually with staff from WorkSource Oregon. The latter is a partnership of public and private agencies serving individuals and businesses.
Gerstenfeld has said supplemental federal benefits are not a factor in deterring people from returning to work.
Among factors that the agency will consider in reemployment, he said, are a lack of child care available for workers, lingering fear of COVID infection via jobs that require close contact with the public, and inadequate skills required for people to take new jobs.
Gerstenfeld did not specify what will happen with self-employed and gig workers who receive federal benefits known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. Many were not covered by unemployment benefits until Congress approved the new program as part of the CARES Act in March 2020.
Although Oregon has regained about 60% of the jobs lost since the low point of the pandemic in April 2020 — and the state’s latest economic forecast projects far more in tax collections and a $1.4 billion rebate to taxpayers next year — state economist Mark McMullen also says Oregon will return to pre-pandemic employment levels by the fourth quarter of 2022.
According to the most recent report by the Employment Department, permanent job losses now account for the largest group of unemployed workers. The number of workers without jobs for at least one year, the long-term unemployed, is at its highest point in nine years.
Oregon job growth in April was around 2,200, down from the average of 14,000 over the preceding three months. The unemployment rate jumped from a modern low of 3.5% in March 2020 to a record high of 13.2% (adjusted) in April 2020, but has since declined to 6%, where it has hovered for a few months.