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U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., left, and U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland.

Two senior members of the state’s congressional delegation sent a scathing letter to the head of the Oregon Employment Department on Wednesday, excoriating her agency for its repeated lapses in paying jobless benefits to laid-off workers and for failing to update workers on the status of their claims.

“The lack of communication and transparency surrounding the administration of their benefits is what makes unemployed Oregonians overwhelmed and frightened,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer and Sen. Ron Wyden wrote in their letter to department director Kay Erickson.

The two Democrats said Congress approved additional benefits as a lifeline for Oregonians during the coronavirus epidemic, a lifeline that has been out of reach for tens of thousands because of indefinite delays in paying benefits.

“Failure to clearly communicate and get unemployment benefits out in a timely manner is failing all of us,” Blumenauer and Wyden wrote.

The employment department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter.

Nearly 400,000 Oregonians have applied for jobless benefits since the middle of March, when the coronavirus outbreak began in earnest. The jobless rate was at an all-time high in April, 14.2%.

The crisis has overwhelmed the employment department, which relies on computer systems from the 1990s. The state has acknowledged that its systems routinely give improper guidance and incorrectly deny claims, issues that have to be resolved manually.

The department says nearly 50,000 regular claims remain unprocessed — some dating back to March. And thousands of other claims are unresolved from self-employed workers and contractors who are newly eligible for benefits.

The employment department’s phones are overloaded — the average hold time spiked to more than 3 hours last week. Most calls never get through and those that do are usually disconnected before callers reach anyone to help with their claims, according to employment department data.

That’s left tens of thousands of Oregonians without any source of income during the pandemic.

Erickson, the department director, has refused several weeks of requests for interviews to explain the fiasco. One of her deputies, David Gerstenfeld, is due to testify next week to a legislative committee.

In their letter, Blumenauer and Wyden wrote that they are sympathetic to the pressures facing the department given the unprecedented volume of jobless claims. But they said they cannot understand why the department isn’t doing a better job telling workers what to expect.

“Waiting on hold is always frustrating, but waiting on hold to try to find out when you can get a check to buy groceries, medicine and pay for essentials, only to be disconnected, is not acceptable,” Blumenauer and Wyden wrote. “It is not understandable, nor acceptable, that (the department) has made only limited attempts to do the massive, outward-facing, ongoing communication the public needs to answer Oregonians’ numerous and justified questions.”

Gov. Kate Brown has been largely silent on the crisis at the employment department, except for a brief Twitter apology last month. Her office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter from Blumenauer and Wyden.

But other Oregon leaders have become increasingly vocal in urging action to address the department’s failings.

Oregon House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner called for “bold action” last week to address the claims backlog and dysfunctional phone system.

Oregon Senate Republican leader Fred Girod noted Tuesday that state auditors had warned repeatedly of problems in the employment department, and that the federal government had funded an $86 million systems upgrade in 2009 — most of which is still waiting to be spent on a project that isn’t due to wrap up until 2025.

“There is no excuse for this bureaucratic failure on a problem that should have been avoided with ample time and resources, and the responsibility rests with Governor Brown and the Oregon Employment Department,” Girod wrote. “The people of Oregon deserve better.”

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