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Computer Upgrade Triggers Problems for Oregon Unemployment

Unemployed Oregonians are lighting up online message boards and the state Employment Department’s phone lines with complaints about a new system that was recently launched for their benefits.

an unemployment benefits application
Shutterstock/Moab Republic
(TNS) — When Kim Foster heard Oregon was replacing the computers that process its unemployment benefits, she promptly signed up for the new system to ensure she wouldn’t miss out on the aid that has helped keep her afloat since her layoff last month.

After the new system kicked in last week, though, it rejected her new account and cut off her benefits. She spent hours on hold trying to submit her claim by phone, ultimately learning she needed a letter from the Oregon Employment Department to reset her account.

So once she got that letter, Foster used the newly created account to submit her claim this week and ran into another problem.

Instead of sending her weekly check, the employment department’s new computers notified Foster that she may have been overpaid the prior week and might have to return the money. It designated her weekly benefits claim for adjudication — a process that can take several weeks to resolve before she gets paid.

“Like many Oregonians who were recently laid off, I need to pay my mortgage and bills on time, and instead they’re claiming I was overpaid and no longer qualify for benefits, and no one can tell me why,” Foster said in an email. “No one can tell me when or if it will be resolved.”

Unemployed Oregonians are lighting up online message boards and the employment department’s phone lines with similar complaints about the new technology.

The agency acknowledges frustrations with new computer system, called Frances Online. But it insists that it is continuing to pay most claims promptly and that its computers are generally operating as expected.

“The system is working for most people and we are doing our best to make it work for more,” said Lindsi Leahy, director of the department’s unemployment insurance division.

The employment department’s new, $106 million computer system went live March 4, replacing obsolete technology that dated to the 1990s. The new computers are designed to be more adaptable and customer friendly, but it doesn’t feel that way for everyone — not yet, anyway.

Confusing letters. Jammed phone lines. Suspended benefits.

It’s all painfully reminiscent of 2020, when the employment department’s prior computer system brought the agency to the brink of collapse in the early days of the pandemic, leaving tens of thousands of Oregonians without help during the deepest economic plunge the state had ever experienced.

The employment department insists things are different this time, and that problems like Foster’s are part of a “learning curve” associated with the computer upgrade.

Agency leaders say claimants’ inadvertent missteps when they sign up for Frances Online or file their weekly claims are causing problems — but that those issues affect a minority of claimants and will soon be resolved.

“We understand the frustration this is causing,” Leahy told reporters Wednesday. “I am confident we are headed in the right direction.”

Problems with the new technology seem to be clustered around a few common issues, based on complaints posted to online message boards and in claimants’ emails and phone calls to The Oregonian/OregonLive:

· Unrecognized accounts: Frances Online isn’t accepting claimants’ new accounts, and people say they’re unable to reach anyone to reset their account or open a new one.

· Suspended claims: People filing claims receive questionnaires seeking more detail about their accounts, and then have their claims suspended or put into adjudication to determine their eligibility. This happens to people whose claims had previously been paid by Oregon’s old system without issue.

· No help: People calling the employment department for help say they often get a busy signal. Those who get through say they often spend hours on hold.

The employment department says it believes few of these problems are related to the underlying technology. Rather, it says there are issues with how people are interacting with the new computers.

A simple oversight when filling out a weekly claim can make it appear people aren’t eligible for benefits in a given week.

For example, the department says some people are inadvertently checking boxes that indicate they hadn’t been seeking work the prior week, when they intended to say they had been seeking work.

Since seeking work is generally a requirement for jobless benefits, that mix-up can cause the department to suspend a claim until staff have time to review the issue.

“Some people are inadvertently telling us there is an eligibility issue when there really isn’t one,” Leahy said. “It’s a new system and the questions do look a little different.”

The new computers are also giving people more information about their own accounts than the old system offered. So claimants may have had claims suspended previously but didn’t realize it until the new system came online.

People should carefully review their weekly claims before submitting them, Leahy said. And if something goes haywire one week, she said people should file the next week’s claim even though the prior week’s claim has been suspended. If there aren’t issues with that next claim, the department will pay it even while it works to sort out what went wrong the prior week.

If Frances Online is rejecting a new account, Leahy said people should start over with the registration process. Most of the time, she said, restarting the process will fix that registration issue.

“We are moving in the right direction,” she said. “We are addressing those bumps in the road quickly.”

There does appear to be at least one issue related to the new technology itself. The employment department said Wednesday that the system incorrectly indicated that some people had been overpaid. The agency said it has corrected 700 such cases and is in the process of resolving others.

It’s all adding up to a deluge of phone calls and online messages from claimants seeking help.

While the department added about temporary employees to help with customer service during the computer upgrade, staffing is down by about 65% from 2021. The agency says that’s because temporary federal funding ran out after the pandemic.

The Legislature just approved $45 million in funding to boost staffing in the unemployment insurance program but agency leaders said Wednesday that the impacts of that money won’t be felt until late in the year.

Even the employment department doesn’t know for sure how many people are having issues transitioning to the new systems.

The agency fielded more than 30,000 benefits claims last week and paid $11 million in jobless benefits. That’s about 4,000 fewer claimants than in the same period last year – a decrease that could indicate thousands are getting hung up in the technology transition, or could suggest a decline in the number of people seeking assistance.

“We still need time to understand the big picture,” Leahy said.

In the long run, agency leaders continue to insist the new computers will provide a more responsive, customer-friendly experience. And they say it’s already paying dividends because the department can now track what went wrong when people’s claims are flagged for problems —agents can see exactly what people saw when they filed out their claims, and which boxes they checked.

In the meantime, people who aren’t getting their benefits are increasingly exasperated. They insist they’ve filled out their claims accurately and that nothing has changed except for the employment department’s computer systems.

“This is not a $100 million improvement. It’s just not,” said Diana Barnes-Brown, a Portland technical writer who was laid off in October and had been receiving weekly assistance until the new computers came online.

The employment department should have been better prepared to answer people’s questions, Barnes-Brown said, and to resolve the issues that inevitably arise with new technology.

Instead, she said unemployed Oregonians are left navigating the new computers by themselves while trying to make ends meet.

“I do, absolutely, need those unemployment payments to continue to pay for my life and my health care,” she said.

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