WARRENTON — The City Commission extended an emergency declaration over the coronavirus through May to coincide with Clatsop County, while admonishing the state over its handling of unemployment claims.
States have been overwhelmed by more than 26 million unemployment claims during the first five weeks of government restrictions over the coronavirus, including 330,000 Oregonians and nearly 3,000 people in the county. A recent national survey by the Economic Policy Institute found that for every 10 people who successfully filed unemployment benefits, three to four have tried and failed.
City Commissioner Mark Baldwin, a building contractor who has laid off employees, described helping some apply for unemployment since early March and seeing them denied for weeks without so much as a letter of apology. The state has acknowledged that many employees eligible for benefits have been denied.
“It’s bordering criminal in my opinion,” Baldwin said. “Because I’m pretty sure if the insurance company denied claims and didn’t communicate anything, the state of Oregon would probably go after them and run them out of business.”
Baldwin worked with Mayor Henry Balensifer on a resolution Tuesday calling on the state to modernize its antiquated computer system with the haste of an emergency and to communicate to denied workers an estimated time frame and eligibility for benefits.
“The state of Oregon’s vague and contradictory messaging, and technological ineptitude has resulted in the confusion, disappointment and severe anguish of many of its citizens which has inflicted significant damage to the morale and mental health of many,” the city’s resolution stated.
The state Employment Department’s dated software has been rife with issues, leaving thousands of workers without benefits while overpaying others. The state declined to waive a laid-off worker’s traditional week of waiting for benefits because of its antiquated computer system. The decision has collectively cost those unemployed around $100 million worth of the $600 weekly additional federal payments approved by Congress, according to a recent article in The Oregonian.
Gov. Kate Brown has said the state will eventually waive the one-week requirement, making it retroactive for laid-off workers to recoup the losses.
The state has added more than 500 people to process unemployment claims. On Tuesday, it started accepting unemployment claims for self-employed, gig and contract workers through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, a month after President Donald Trump made such workers eligible.
City Commissioner Rick Newton criticized the national rollout of expanded unemployment insurance, saying he has a daughter in Alaska getting more than enough while another in Oregon has applied for and been denied benefits four times.
“I think that this ratchets up our position on an issue that I think is … probably the most pressing issue for our community,” Balensifer said.
In March, Warrenton was the first city in the county to ban short-term lodging at campgrounds, hotels and vacation rentals during the coronavirus pandemic. The county Board of Commissioners has extended a similar ban through May.
Brown recently released a draft of how counties could petition the state to reopen businesses and public gatherings in phases as the symptoms and cases of coronavirus decrease . The state must increase its ability to test and trace the contacts of those infected with the virus, and local hospitals must demonstrate the capacity to treat a surge of patients.
“It makes sense to be in step with the county on that when they reopen, we reopen at the same time,” Balensifer said.
By phone, the City Commission heard from Monica Steele, the assistant county manager, and Jennifer Purcell, a North Coast coordinator with Brown’s Regional Solutions Team, about what reopening requires.
The Oregon Health Authority reported 2,446 cases and 101 deaths from the virus statewide as of Wednesday morning. The health authority tracked 460 test results in Clatsop County, including six positive cases.
“Right now, we understand testing and contact-tracing to really be the Achilles’ heel in our ability to meet the core preparedness measures at the state” level, Purcell said.
Steele said the county is worried about the capacity to test and the availability of protective equipment as more businesses open with heightened sanitation requirements, but has adequate staffing to trace contacts.
The first phase of reopening could include restaurants and personal services such as salons with limited seating. Future phases would address gyms and larger venues such as theaters. Baldwin said he’d like more types of businesses to open quicker if things look good during initial phases.
Steele cautioned patience, saying the county needs to monitor how opening different industries influences the rate of the coronavirus during its two-week incubation period.
“If all of a sudden we do have that resurgence, we don’t want to take all of those back to ground zero,” Steele said.