Oregon experienced the sharpest economic downturn in state history at the start of the coronavirus pandemic as unemployment shot to a record high in a matter of weeks.
The state’s jobless rate soared as high as 14.9% in April, worse than at any point during the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, and over 600,000 Oregonians filed unemployment claims as they lost their jobs or faced temporary furloughs or cutbacks in hours. Thousands remain out of work.
For many, the worst of the crisis has been the fiasco at the Oregon Employment Department, which relies on ancient computer systems that were wholly incapable of handling the flood of claims. That left close to 200,000 claims unpaid for many weeks through the heart of the pandemic.
Even now, more than four months into the crisis, tens of thousands are still going without benefits and struggling to get by. The employment department has made significant headway on clearing a backlog of 70,000 claim from self-employed workers, who became eligible for benefits in March when Congress established the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program.
But nearly 20,000 of those workers are still waiting for their claims to be processed, and tens of thousands of other claims are stuck in adjudication — a process that can last for months.
The Oregonian/OregonLive has spoken with many of those anxiously waiting for their unemployment insurance benefits to come through. Here are the stories of seven of them:
Sarah Carlberg filed for PUA benefits when Oregon opened applications for self-employed workers in April and received her first check within two weeks. She hasn’t received another check since. (Beth Nakamura/Staff)
Sarah Carlberg, 35
Over the last four months, Sarah Carlberg has tracked every single one of her family’s expenses on a detailed spreadsheet. She is making sure no dollar is wasted on anything unnecessary.
Carlberg’s partner is still working as an emergency room nurse in Hillsboro, but Carlberg, an event producer and community organizer, hasn’t worked since March. Like many who rely on large events for their livelihood, she doesn’t know when her work will return.
“The only reason why we’re continuing to float, like, doggie paddle, is because we were able to put the mortgage on forbearance,” Carlberg said. “That’s the only thing keeping us from falling apart financially. I don’t know what we’re going to do (when that ends). It’s terrifying.”
Carlberg filed for PUA benefits when Oregon opened applications for self-employed workers in April and received her first check within two weeks. But she hasn’t received another check since, as the employment department has struggled to keep up with weekly claims from self-employed workers.
The couple have five young children to support, which has made the lack of relief especially stressful.
Carlberg has heard from others who have had their weekly claims processed after waiting half a day or more on the phone to speak to a representative. She has tried to avoid calling the employment department herself because she wants to leave the phone lines open for those in greater need, and because she doesn’t have the time to wait hours on the phone with five children at home.
“It’s not just unemployment, it’s not just school being out, it’s not just about (the safety of) frontline workers,” Carlberg said. “It’s just this insane amalgamation of things that creates an environment of complete instability, a lack of being able to do any future planning at all, which is critically important for families who are trying to stay stable.”
Sarah Spriggs left her home in West Linn and moved into a trailer in Southern Oregon after being forced to stop working as a massage therapist due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Spriggs)
Sarah Spriggs, 45
Sarah Spriggs purchased a trailer and left her West Linn apartment to move to Southern Oregon in late June. There, she struggled to find an RV park with available space and was briefly forced to station her trailer across from a neighborhood park in Grants Pass. It wasn’t until last week when she finally secured a permanent spot for her trailer in Shady Cove.
It’s a situation she never imagined she would be in during her 20 years as a massage therapist, but the coronavirus pandemic changed everything.
After state coronavirus restrictions forced her to close her practice in March, Spriggs briefly continued offering medical massage through her job at Gentle Care Chiropractic in West Linn. But business there plummeted as well. She found herself bringing in just over $200 most weeks, and was forced to accept loans from friends and family to continue to pay her bills.
Spriggs, who has Behcet’s syndrome, a rare disorder that causes blood vessel inflammation throughout the body, was finally advised by her doctors to leave that job as well.
When Oregon began accepting benefits claims from self-employed workers in late April, Spriggs applied immediately. She has received payments for six of the 17 weeks she has claimed.
The employment department denied her benefits for some weeks, based on the income she made before she stopped working altogether, then mysteriously stopped processing her claims. She finally received payments for three weeks of claims last week after spending more than three hours on the phone with the department and resubmitting all her weekly claims.
“I’m devastated and I’m angry,” said Spriggs, before the three weeks of payments were processed. “If I was able to and be safe, I would be picketing outside of their department. This is wrong. It’s criminal that they are doing this to people, and I know I’m not the only one.”
Spriggs went several weeks without seeing her two children, Ashton, 17, and Zenaya, 9, as she worked to secure a permanent spot for her trailer and waited on the state to process her unemployment claims. Her children, who have been staying with their father in Wilsonville, will finally be able to visit her this weekend.
But Spriggs’ path forward remains uncertain. She doesn’t know when, or if, it will be safe for her to practice massage again. She is currently searching for remote work, but doesn’t know if a job will materialize.
“This has really destroyed my life,” Spriggs said.
Matthew Workman applied for PUA, the new benefits program for self-employed and gig workers, shortly after the application came out in late April. He has yet to receive any payments through the program. (Beth Nakamura/Staff)
Matthew Workman, 51
Matthew Workman was forced to take his son to a hospital in late March after the 14-year-old suffered an injury. The medical bill recently arrived. It sits on a desk in Workman’s Beaverton home, a constant reminder of the thousands of dollars the family still owes the hospital.
Workman hopes to use the unemployment insurance money he is owed to pay the bill, but he has been waiting since April and has no idea if those payments will ever arrive.
“I’m waiting for that pandemic money to come,” Workman said. “That’s how we’re going to pay for that. It’s not an insubstantial bill, and I’m just waiting.”
Workman, a former journalist who now drives for Uber and Lyft, started seeing interest in rides drop in March when the pandemic hit. After Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced her stay-home order on March 23, Workman stopped driving entirely. He applied for PUA, the new benefits program for self-employed and gig workers, shortly after the application came out in late April.
When he hadn’t heard anything by June, Workman called the employment department. He was met with a busy signal the first 50 times he called, before finally being placed on hold. After waiting three-and-a-half hours to speak to a representative, he learned his application had been received.
Long hold times have been common throughout the pandemic. The department relies on phones to resolve nearly all questions and has resisted implementing a broad system for calling back claimants. As a result, the department’s phone lines have been completely jammed since March. Hold times, which averaged several hours long at some points early in the pandemic, have dropped considerably. But the vast majority of calls never get through at all.
Workman said the employment department did finally reach out to him this month to ask him to submit documentation to verify his income and employment status. But three months after applying for unemployment insurance, he still hasn’t received any money. And just this week, the employment department announced that Lyft drivers may need to apply through regular unemployment, not PUA, to receive benefits.
“The feeling you get is you’re on your own,” Workman said. “I’m used to having some level of predictability or certainty in just how interactions with your government will work and it’s jarring to not have that, to just have it in the back of your head that, ‘I can’t count on these people.’”
Workman’s wife, Julie, works in brand strategy for a software company, which has enabled the family to pay their bills and support their three children amid the pandemic. Workman recently returned to work as well after Lyft and Uber started requiring customers to wear masks.
But he will have to stop working if his children aren’t able to return to school this fall. Leaders of many of the state’s largest school districts have already announced plans to offer only distance learning until at least November.
“That second income is what helped fill in the gaps,” Workman said. “We’ve got some savings, but it’s nervous times because we don’t know how long this is going to go. I have no clue when Oregon is ever going to have their act together in terms of sorting out this (unemployment) problem and then my ability to work once school starts, I might have to go back on unemployment.”
Ngoc Hanh Huynh was denied regular unemployment insurance because she hadn’t worked enough hours in 2019 to qualify, but felt sure she could access relief through PUA. But those payments never came through. (Photo courtesy of Ngoc Hanh Huynh)
Ngoc Hanh Huynh, 52
Ngoc Hanh Huynh didn’t expect to retire this year, but she said the coronavirus pandemic and a lack of financial relief has given her no choice.
Huynh had been working at a nail and hair salon in Portland for four months when Oregon Gov. Kate Brown forced salons to shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. She immediately applied for unemployment insurance, hoping to get financial relief to continue paying rent and utilities.
She was denied regular unemployment insurance because she hadn’t worked enough hours in 2019 to qualify, but felt sure she could access relief through PUA. Under federal regulations, workers who did not earn enough wages or work enough hours for regular unemployment benefits can still get relief through PUA.
Three months later, her claim still has not been processed.
“A lot of people have the same situation as me and they’ve qualified, but not me,” said Huynh through a Vietnamese interpreter. “I claimed every week, but didn’t receive anything.”
Without relief, Huynh was forced to apply for food stamps and ask her 31-year-old son, Daniel, to lend her money to pay her rent. When her workplace reopened in June, she returned to work out of necessity, even though she feared exposing herself to the coronavirus on the job.
But even now, Huynh is struggling to earn the same income that she did before the pandemic as customers continue to stay home. And she still hasn’t received any unemployment payments for her drop in income or for her time out of work. She also remains fearful of catching the virus.
Recently, she decided that her reduced income wasn’t worth the risk. She said she will take an early retirement next month.
Sushmita Poddar spent over a decade building a string of Hillsboro businesses. She has been unable to access relief through PUA since the pandemic forced her to shut her businesses. (Photo courtesy of Sushmita Poddar)
Sushmita Poddar, 40
Sushmita Poddar spent over a decade building a string of Hillsboro businesses, including Amrapali Boutique, which specializes in designer Indian clothing and jewelry.
But she was forced to close her businesses in March by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s stay-home order.
Despite managing to access some business relief through a local grant and loans, Poddar said she has racked up over $25,000 in business debt as she has been unable to pay the rent and utilities on her business locations.
A rental assistance program helped her cover the cost of her own apartment, but her lease recently expired, and she doesn’t know if she will be allowed to stay there much longer without income. She said she needs to prove that her monthly income is three times her rent to secure a new lease.
“I literally don’t know what my future is right now,” Poddar said. “I’m not religious, but that’s basically where it is right now, it’s in the hands of God.”
Poddar applied for PUA benefits for self-employed workers when the state rolled out the application in April, hoping to receive support while her businesses remained shut. Her claim has not been processed.
Poddar, who sits on multiple committees in Hillsboro and Washington County, said she has been disappointed with the delays at the employment department, but also said that cities and counties should have coordinated with the state to better support businesses and individuals through the pandemic, and to help individuals through the unemployment application process.
“The community, and more specifically, people that we have elected, did not have any program in place for truly supporting micro-businesses, small businesses, freelancers, artists, contractors,” Poddar said.
Clark James received $870 immediately for five weeks of unemployment claims from late February through early March, but then payments mysteriously stopped. (Photo courtesy of Clark James)
Clark James, 48
Clark James worked on the television show ”Grimm” as the co-owner of a Portland video production company. Three years ago, after “Grimm” ended, he sold the business to his partner and continued as a freelancer.
When the pandemic hit, his work dried up completely. More than four months later, it remains unclear when the film and television industry will rebound.
“It really caught me off guard,” James said. “I’m having to figure out if I’m going to change my career, which isn’t easy to do after 25 years.”
For the first time in his life, James applied for unemployment insurance in April.
Denied regular unemployment insurance in June, because he was a freelancer not usually eligible for jobless benefits, he reapplied under the new PUA program for self-employed workers. Oregon paid him $870 immediately for five weeks of claims from late February through early March, but then mysteriously stopped. He estimates he is owed about $13,000 for 17 weeks of unpaid claims.
James leased out his apartment in Portland and is currently living in a home he owns in Washington, where he has asked for a forbearance on his mortgage.
“The savings I’ve had is pretty much gone,” James said. “I’ve gone from having resources to having debt. So, now I’m going to have to dig myself out because I’ve had to take out loans just to get through this period.”
Charlynn Chambers was forced to shut down the childcare business she runs out of her home due to the coronavirus pandemic. She applied for PUA benefits for self-employed workers, but has yet to see any money through the program. (Photo courtesy of Charlynn Chambers)
Charlynn Chambers, 29
Charlynn Chambers and her husband, Michael, spent 10 years pinching pennies to save up to buy a house. The Tigard couple finally had enough for a down payment before they both lost their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic.
Michael Chambers filed for unemployment insurance on March 17, the day he was laid off from his job as a facilities manager at a car dealership. Shortly after, Charlynn Chambers was forced to shut down the childcare business she runs out of her home.
She applied for PUA benefits for self-employed workers and was told she qualified, but has yet to see any money through the program.
Her husband has been receiving his regular unemployment insurance since March, but his weekly income will be cut in half next week due to the expiration of the extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits that the federal government approved as part of the CARES Act. Democrats in Congress are pushing to extend the benefit, while Republicans are proposing to cut it to $200.
“Fortunately, we’re not in the same position as some people who are losing their homes,” Chambers said. “But we’ve been saving up really hard for a down payment for a house. Now, if we don’t have more income, we’re looking at needing to spend that money that we’ve been working so hard for our down payment to even be able to live on.”
Chambers has worked from home to care for her three young children since her oldest was born six years ago, and she isn’t in a position to look for a job outside her home. Her husband has actively been applying for work, but nothing has come through amid the pandemic.
If her husband can’t find a job in the next few months, Chambers isn’t sure what her family of five will do. Even if her PUA payments start to come through, she said that her family will be bringing in well under $1,000 a week before taxes without the extra $600 federal benefit.
“It’s definitely scary to consider that maybe he won’t have a job at the end of the year, maybe it will be a long time before either one of us is able to have more income coming in,” Chambers said. “That’s definitely scary because we would like to pay our bills and provide for our family.”