April 17, 2020
Since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic in the United States, more than twenty-two million people have filed for unemployment. This has overwhelmed employment departments across the county, where public employees are working hard to process paperwork and help people get money to stay afloat during the crisis. 270,000 unemployment claims have been filed in Oregon, the largest set of claims ever made, and SEIU 503 members are remaining in the office as “essential employees” doing that work.
The employees processing these claims are being put at risk. The first case of COVID-19 was reported at the Beaverton call center office, where more than 100 people work. SEIU members have filed complaints about the agencies response, including their inability to telework, failure to follow social distancing best practices, and a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE).
“This isn’t just a workplace safety issue, it’s an economic issue,” said Adam Lane, an adjudicator at the Employment Department, noting that hundreds of thousands of Oregonians are counting on unemployment benefits to get them through this difficult time. Lane said that “the impact on the entire State’s economy could be significant” if the department is not able to get people the benefits they’re owed.
“All the work done on those jobs is done over the phone and on the computer, and it all can be done remotely,” Lane said. “I’m not sure why the agency has steadfastly refused to allow anyone to do it. Instead, they have continued to have people work in these environments where they are getting each other sick.”
The agency has responded by saying that their technology – which is 40 years old – prohibits them from allowing call center employees to telework. There’s no denying that challenge, but many other call centers have recently moved to remote work environments. Creative solutions are out there.
Lane and other SEIU members have broadly criticized the agency’s response, highlighting a decision to move to split shifts where one group of workers come in early and another comes in late. This effectively halved the capacity of the call centers. Members also note other problems with this response, including server downtimes that prevent people from doing work and call volume, which is not evenly spread throughout the day.
The Agency’s response to COVID-19 has been frustratingly slow. It’s important to note that the frontline staff – members of our Union – continue to do amazing work. Over the last few weeks, SEIU members have processed 130,000 unemployment claims, orders of magnitude above the normal workload. They’ve accomplished this all while putting themselves in harms way every day.
At the end of the second week in April, only half of the state’s unemployment claims had been processed, according to reporting in the Oregonian. The agency needs to rise to the occasion, and so far it’s not.