Oregon lawmakers have the opportunity Saturday to question officials about the much-criticized performance of the Employment Department in handling a record number of claims during the shutdown of business activity in the coronavirus pandemic.
And this time, the legislators need to earn their pay.
The agency has responded to about 90% of people submitting applications for unemployment assistance. But tens of thousands of Oregonians still are not receiving assistance. Many just can’t get through on the phone. Some were incorrectly informed they needed to reapply for benefits. And in the beginning at least, the state said it would not be able to provide Oregonians with some benefits even though the federal government provided money for it.
Legislators need to get to the bottom of all this, but during a Wednesday session on the situation, that never happened.
The committee called on Oregon Employment Department Director Kay Erickson to testify, and she and an aide, David Gerstenfeld, sucked up the entire 60 minutes with a Powerpoint presentation. If it wasn’t so outrageous, it would have to earn admiration as one of the more impressive bureaucratic filibusters in state legislative history.
Perhaps more outrageous, the committee chairman, Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, did not allow questions during the hearing.
Is that the kind of legislative leadership Oregonians want? And what does it say about the interest of the Employment Department leadership in listening to what the elected leaders of the state want to know? It’s not flattering.
Saturday’s hearing — this time a full three hours, from 9 a.m. to noon — is the result of criticism for Wednesday’s tone-deaf handling of a major failure of the state.
Lawmakers now need to press for answers, and Oregon Unemployment Department officials need to be frank in their responses. Not listening to legislators, not allowing questions feeds the perception that people in state government care little for the people they truly work for — Oregonians.