I was recently laid off from my job as an Office Manager of a consulting firm in Portland, Oregon. My job was eliminated due to budget restrictions; I was terminated unexpectedly and asked to clear out my office on five hours’ notice to make way for company restructure.
This situation certainly puts a monkey wrench in the process of quickly paying down our huge student debt, a plan that was benefitting greatly from the steady income my desk job afforded.
Along the way, I have been learning more about unemployment benefits program here in Oregon, and I have to say that it’s definitely inspiring on paper. Residents who are laid off from their jobs are eligible for up to 60% of their paychecks, provided they go through the application process correctly and commit to applying to several jobs every week. This money comes from a tax employers pay per employee on a quarterly basis, so it’s not unfairly taxing residents or anything.
Each week you apply for your check via a series of scripted questions about whether you accepted or turned down a job offer in the previous week, if you have applied for jobs, and if you earned any income. It is a process that is for the most part automated via telephone and/or internet, but you must verify your identity in person for your “welcome orientation” with a government worker before any benefits can flow your way.
The application process for Unemployment Benefits in Oregon:
1. Apply online at oregon.gov (currently: “Online Claims System” link on left margin at http://www.oregon.gov/EMPLOY/UI/about_us.shtml)
2. File your new claim. It takes about 20 minutes for this first step and you’ll need very specific information about your employment history and salary over the past 18 months. Tip: do not check any boxes saying you were “fired” if you were in fact laid off.
3. Next, expect to receive postal mail with further instructions about your in-person verification meeting and how to register for the iMatch system.
4. Go ahead and set yourself up on iMatch right away to avoid further delay. It’s a job center that matches job seekers and employers based on keywords and experience. You will need to import job descriptions from your resume and take reading comprehension and math assessment tests to gauge your skill level (do it at home in 15-30 minutes). If you do not have internet access at home, they had TONS of computers available at the Employment Center near my home. You can wait until you get there to register on iMatch, but this will add a significant amount of time to your appointment length.
5. Ah, the in-person appointment. I went to the Oregon Employment Department today and it was… special. The man at the check-in desk didn’t believe me when I told him I had already done everything at home (there was a disconnect in the system related to an application error on my account) so he created a new temporary account for me to use. After verifying in the computer lab that I was in fact still in the system, I went back and talked to someone else a little more with it at the front desk who realized that I now had two duplicate records that would need to be merged by their tech people.
Next, they had me wait for 10 minutes at a little round table for a staff member to interview me and answer questions. We spent about 20 minutes chatting about her recent vacation, and she offered me a chocolate covered almond. Thirty minutes later, she realized I was a “nonvalid claim” and would need to call a certain number in order to see why the account was nonvalid.
It turns out that in the online application process I had not checked a box to allow them to use an “Alternate Base Year” to calculate my benefit, and since I started my job in November 2010 they had determined that I was not eligible for anything since I made under the minimum ($5k?) amount for the entire year.
6. Calling the Oregon Employment Department (503-451-2400) is an adventure! After jumping through a phone tree, you are told that the wait time is more than an hour. Luckily, they have adopted the technology where they call you back when it’s your turn in queue. That was one truly helpful system in a maze of frustrating processes.
Pro tip: Kathy, my OED staff buddy, advised me to call the line at 7:55am on any given morning, because the phone lines open at 8:00am and you’ll already be in the queue. Thanks, Kath!
So here is where the story gets interesting… if you use the Oregon Unemployment Insurance Estimator you will be able to see what kind of payout you should expect to receive every week. I was floored when they told me a number that was only 22% of my base rate for my previous job. Much lower than the “up to 60%” I had been expecting. I spoke with a few different people on the phone (hourlong waits multiplied!) while investigating my options to see why I was getting the short end of the stick even though I have worked in Oregon for 10 months. I discovered this – if they use an Alternate Base Year to calculate because you did not work through the previous fiscal year, there’s still a 6 month gap. So the system basically doesn’t take into account any of the wages you have earned in the past six months, but only balances out what you earned 18 months ago to 6 months ago.
So, if I applied to start receiving Unemployment Insurance benefits on July 3 (the time of the fiscal quarterly change in their system) I would be eligible for 22% of my base salary. If I wait until October 3 to file a claim, I would get closer to 38% of my salary. Waiting until January 3 would get me 55%, and waiting until April 3 would top me out at 59%. In all of these scenarios, you are given 26 weeks of benefit as a starting place (often eligible for extension). There’s no way to start at one rate and re-apply the next quarter for a new rate. According to the phone agents, you’re “locked in” once you start.
I could do nothing between now and then but live off savings (ahem, and husband’s paycheck), then apply for the insurance on 4/3/12 and get MUCH more benefit than if I applied now. There’s no time limit to claiming the insurance benefit, so if you’ve been out of work for years you could navigate this process and start receiving a check (provided you were laid off or other qualifying factors – quitting negates eligibility, as does being fired for misconduct).
Why would I not wait for a bigger payout? Is this the kids-and-marshmallow experiment people love to reference? HERE’S THE PART THAT BOTHERS ME: if we were so cash-strapped that we couldn’t afford to pay rent or buy groceries next month without something extra coming in, I would be forced to take the 22% option. It frustrates me that this system with the 6 month gap might further marginalize the poor. Of course, applicants should all be trying to find a new job and earn their own living, so you could argue that it forces people to get out there and really try instead of cashing in government assistance indefinitely… and I very well might be missing major factors (like people not knowing to apply for 6 months after having been out of work that long)… but damn, this seems like a flawed system.
So here’s what I’ll be doing: borrowing against my business account in order to cashflow business expenses and debt repayment. Then repaying that business account when I am eligible for almost-maximum benefits in 2012 (provided I didn’t pick up another job by then). And enrolling in the Self Employment Assistance Program in order to get my business off the ground.
I don’t want to sound entitled or whiny here, but THIS IS MESSED UP.
(did I miss something?)