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Oregon Employment Department Slated to Modernize in March

The Oregon Employment Department’s new technology system will go live March 4, about 15 years after the state received federal funding to replace its obsolete technology.

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(TNS) — The Oregon Employment Department’s new technology system will go live March 4, about 15 years after the state received federal funding to replace its obsolete technology.

The $106 million computer system will enable the employment department to more easily handle claims and questions online and will be more flexible to changes to benefits programs. The employment department says it will also be more secure, helping guard against fraudulent claims that are bogging down claims processing.

“It’s more user-friendly. It’s easier for self-help. It’s easier for us to update,” said David Gerstenfeld, the agency’s director. “It’s much more adaptable.”

The employment department will stop taking calls and claims on Feb. 28, two workdays before the new system goes online. Claimants won’t be able to contact the department during that time and will have to set up an account on the new system, called Frances Online, when it goes live at 8 a.m. March 4.

Oregon’s new Paid Leave Oregon program, which is run by the employment department and already uses Frances Online, will be offline during the same period.

The current computer system, which dates to the 1990s, is notoriously rigid and was responsible for many of the employment department’s failures during the COVID-19 recession and its difficulties in promptly paying claims in 2020 and 2021.

Oregon received $86 million from the federal government to modernize its technology in 2009, but dysfunction in the employment department – documented in successive state audits and investigations by The Oregonian/OregonLive – prevented the agency from updating its system for well over a decade.

Three consecutive department directors were fired or forced from their jobs during that period, when infighting and poor prioritization also hamstrung the agency and hobbled its customer service.

The computer modernization process was just getting underway when the pandemic hit and Oregon was among the slowest states to pay jobless claims as unemployment soared to a record high. Many laid-off workers had to wait many months for economic assistance as the state worked to climb out of the steepest, deepest economic downturn in its history.

Even now, the state is still working to recover benefits it says it shouldn’t have paid during the pandemic. The agency is fighting a lawsuit that claims the employment department’s process for recovering overpaid benefits violates the U.S. Constitution’s right to due process. A court ruling could come next month.

Meanwhile, the time people spend on hold when calling the employment department is rising and the agency is taking much longer to pay claims despite Oregon’s jobless rate being near a record low. The agency blames a decline in federal funding and a spike in fraudulent claims, which it says is forcing it to spend more time scrutinizing benefits applications.

The new computers could help address similar issues but may not solve all of them, at least not immediately. People seeking benefits from Paid Leave Oregon program have reported issues with the application process and spend nearly 50 minutes on hold, on average, when calling for help, even though that program already uses Frances Online.

Frances Online came in within the budget Oregon set for the program, Gerstenfeld said Wednesday. And while he acknowledged there may be issues around its launch, he said it will offer long-term benefits that will make aid more accessible to laid-off workers.

“It will really offer a lot of benefits for customer service,” he said.

© 2024 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.