State watchdogs have found errors and possible racial and income disparities in the time it takes the Oregon Department of Employment to review claims for benefits, according to a report released Wednesday. .
The long-awaited report from the Oregon Secretary of State’s office, home to the state’s auditors, takes a closer look at how the department handled the surge in demand for benefits in the first year about the pandemic.
Much of the report covers topics previously reported by the Statesman Journal, other media, and past audit reports.
But state auditors also dove into department records. They found errors and potential disparities between racial and ethnic groups and employees and the time it took for them to have their claims reviewed.
Racial and income disparities
Listeners said it seemed to take some racial and ethnic groups and low-income people longer to go through a process called arbitration.
Applicants must file applications proving that they are eligible for benefits. Arbitration is when the department further investigates whether someone is eligible to receive money from the government after losing their job.
In addition to what was already a slow process, some groups waited days longer on average for the arbitration process to be completed if they filed a claim for benefits between March and December 2020.
On average, an Asian candidate waited 12 days longer and candidates from Hawaii or the Pacific Islands waited 6 days longer than white, black and Latino candidates.
“A two-week delay could mean the difference to someone paying for a car on time or losing their vehicle due to repossession, or the ability to buy food,” the listeners wrote.
Pre-pandemic data did not match this trend, the auditors said. But 40% of people applying for benefits did not provide race or ethnicity information at all during the pandemic, and 67% did not before the pandemic.
“It is possible that these trends would be different if each claim contained this information,” the auditors wrote.
Auditors also found that claims from lower-income people seemed to take longer to adjudicate than higher-income people.
A person claiming $100 to $185 per week could expect to wait six days longer for a decision on their claim than a person claiming $272 to $357 in benefits per week.
The auditors, noting the limitations of the information the department has, said it was important for the agency to collect more information and analyze it to find potential reasons why these disparities might be occurring.
In response to the audit report, the director of the department David Gerstenfeld said the agency was “deeply concerned about possible inequities” in the system.
In March, the department received a $4.5 million federal grant to help make the process fairer, including “removing administrative hurdles and improving the speed of payments” to those eligible for benefits. , said Gerstenfeld.
Oregon has struggled in the past to meet federally set targets for issuing arbitration awards. But Gerstenfeld said Oregon exceeded those goals in the first three months of 2022.
The goal is 80% of claims decided within 21 days, and Oregon has reached 88%.
Errors found in agency records
Auditors reviewed approximately 155,000 auction records from January 2019 to December 2020 and found errors and test data that should not have been in the system.
For example, they found about 45,000 duplicate records and more than 900 claims with missing dates or dates that didn’t make sense, such as a problem detected before the person even applied for benefits.
These errors and the “lack of many baseline checks” to prevent errors mean it’s unclear whether the information the department collects about people applying for benefits is correct, auditors said.
Gerstenfeld said an ongoing project to update the agency’s IT systems will “significantly reduce data errors” and be able to track claims being processed, including a feature that will automatically “escalate” complaints when they have not been processed for a certain period of time.
This technology update will probably not be done for two years, because the Statesman Journal reported in April.
Auditors also found fault with “confusing” and “contradictory” information the department provided to people trying to get benefits.
They recommended the department examine whether texting applicants is possible and that the department consolidate all of its unemployment information on one website.
The report also suggested that Oregon create a mediator to help people trying to get benefits, which can be a complex and confusing process. The ministry agreed to study this recommendation by the end of the year.
Claire Withycombe covers state government for the Statesman Journal. You can reach her at 503-910-3821 or [email protected]