8fbd035081bd09934004bfc61d79c31c5d5d9ee4

Oregon’s unemployment insurance, paid leave programs will go offline to prep for new website

A screenshot of Oregon's paid leave website. The Oregon Employment Department is upgrading its online system to apply for unemployment insurance to Frances Online.

A screenshot of Oregon’s paid leave website. The Oregon Employment Department is upgrading its online system to apply for unemployment insurance to Frances Online.

Screenshot/Oregon Employment Department

Oregon’s online system to apply for unemployment insurance is getting an upgrade, a move years in the making as evidence mounted that the Employment Department’s outdated technology was too rigid and confusing for modern-day benefits.

On Monday, people seeking unemployment benefits will begin using Frances Online, a new system built for the state. Employers and the state’s paid leave program already use Frances.

“The new system is going to be a lot more flexible and a lot more agile,” Lindsi Leahy, the unemployment insurance director, said in an interview. “It has more security features and it’s really going to provide increased customer service for our claimants.”

In preparation for the launch, the department’s old and new online systems, along with the customer service phone lines, will go offline at 5 p.m. Wednesday. Phone lines and the online portal will reopen at 8 a.m. Monday.

People seeking new unemployment claims must apply by 5 p.m. Tuesday in the old system or wait until Frances goes online. Those with existing claims must submit weekly material in the old system by 5 p.m. Wednesday to avoid a disruption in benefits.

“If they happen to miss those deadlines, they can go ahead and file after the system comes back online on March 4,” Leahy said. “But their benefits will be delayed because they filed after the deadline.”

Officials said the state’s $106 million, multiyear effort to upgrade the Oregon Employment Department’s technology should help alleviate some — but not all — of the issues identified through public feedback and official state audits.

“Long-term, we will see a lot of efficiencies from the new system after everybody learns it,” Employment Department Director David Gerstenfeld said in an interview. “But the bottom line is we still will need more staff.”

The department has come up against tight funding over the years, he said, as it has tried to add features to increase accessibility, like offering websites in multiple languages.

“The federal funding levels nationally for state unemployment insurance programs for decades has just not been enough,” Gerstenfeld said.

Past audits from the Oregon secretary of state’s office have detailed the need for more staff. Audits in 2012 and 2015 also made note of the confusing online system, saying the technology dating back to the 1990s had a hard time handling complex claims and rule changes.

A 2022 audit detailed how the system failed to get out timely payments when the pandemic pushed Oregon’s unemployment rate to historic highs.

“Oregon Employment Department’s antiquated computer systems could not easily handle the many program changes implemented during the pandemic,” the auditors wrote. “And the agency’s phone-based approach, while generally adequate in normal times, could not accommodate the wave of phone calls OED received.”

The department has settled one lawsuit regarding the rate at which it issued decisions and paid benefits when the pandemic hit. It settled another suit over how the agency communicated about benefits. And there is a lawsuit pending that claims the agency didn’t communicate properly about overpayment of benefits.

While the need for more staff — especially ones who can research and communicate with claimants about complex cases — will likely persist, Gerstenfeld said the new online system will solve some of the frustrations users and audits have reported.

Frances offers more self-serve options, he said, like the ability to chat with unemployment insurance staff and a secure messaging feature to ask and answer questions about specific claims.

After staff and the public become familiar with the website, Gerstenfeld hopes it will cut down on the number of phone calls seeking online help. That could make more staff available to talk with Oregonians who have complicated claims.

Frances Online also offers a one-stop site for communication about claims, a feature that didn’t exist before. In general, officials said, the new website is easier to understand and navigate.

Still, in the interim, Gerstenfeld acknowledged the transition could be bumpy.

For the migration to Frances Online, he said the department is using one-time funds to hire 40 temporary staff. But that won’t solve long-term issues, he said.

“The customer expectations that the public has — and that we have — have gone up immensely,” Gerstenfeld said. “We have more access points, more languages, better expectations about tools and timeliness of responses. And the funding that was inadequate before has just gotten more and more inadequate.”

Related Posts

You may also like...