Andrea Coit

Benefïts 101

COVID-19 means a record number of people need help understanding unemployment 

In the last month and a half, a record number of nearly 300,000 Oregon residents filed for unemployment due to COVID-19. But with the advent of new federal legislation and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES) package passed by Congress, people who are temporarily laid off are entitled to extra unemployment benefits. 

That’s the good news. The bad news is the process for filing for temporary unemployment benefits is complicated.

Eugene Weekly spoke with a few local attorneys to address some confusion around unemployment related to the virus. 

Andrea Coit and Frank Gibson are attorneys with Hutchinson and Cox in Eugene, specializing in unemployment law and business law, respectively. Due to the postponement of court cases, Gibson and Coit aren’t spending time in court and are instead offering advice to businesses and individuals.

More than anything, Coit and Gibson emphasize not calling the Oregon Employment Department. 

“Their system is flooded with calls,” Coit says. “Trust that if you submit your application it will go through.” She adds that the department has hired more people to help move things along, but that it is highly unlikely you will be able to reach someone from the department, so calling is a waste of time. 

“People are alarmed, naturally,” Gibson adds. “It’s natural to want to talk to someone, but going to the website is much better.”

Because of the number of applications, Coit adds, people should not expect to have their benefits go through for upwards of three weeks. And the extra $600 each week that comes from the CARES Act will come through when approved for Oregon unemployment. The CARES Act also provides for loans to small businesses, student debt relief and the $1,200 stimulus checks. Many small businesses have been unable to secure the loan, because so much money went to larger businesses and chains. 

Some people are not totally unemployed, though, and are still working part time at their jobs until their work opens up full time again. However, people are allowed to work reduced hours and still get benefits. 

If an employer brings back a worker to 75 percent of what they had made previously, then the person should not receive unemployment benefits any longer, Gibson says.

“Normalcy doesn’t translate,” he says of the situation. 

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Frank Gibson

He adds that another question that continually comes up is about people who can come into work, but don’t want to because they or people in their household are more susceptible to the virus. Parents may have to stay home and homeschool their children. These people can be entitled to sick leave. 

“There are companies, though, that need their workers to come in,” he explains. These employees could be fired, but Occupational Safety and Health Administration law protects people from working in a hazardous worksite. 

Coit adds that the unemployment system will err on the side of caution and is extending benefits another 10 weeks, because of school closures, forcing parents to stay home and watch their kids longer. 

On the other side of that situation, Gibson says, if someone who is sick won’t go home, their employer can send them home.

One other unique situation seen in the coronavirus pandemic is employees not being laid off, but being furloughed. Some organizations will furlough an employee for a week and bring them back on in the next, rotating through who gets to work. On this, Coit says that these people can get unemployment for the time they are furloughed.

“On their application, they should indicate the time they expect to return to work, but be conservative on the estimate because that will be the end date for benefits,” she says. 

Coit says that as businesses and places of work open up again, the state will face new challenges when it comes to unemployment. Although people may want to be working, until there is a vaccine, some will still fear getting the virus or passing it onto a loved one. 

“If Gov. [Kate] Brown opens businesses, what if people don’t want to go back to work?” she asks. “The  answer for that is unclear at this time, but it will most likely require new legislation.”  

If people have further questions about the CARES Act, Gibson and Coit recommend Rep. Peter DeFazio’s resource guide at DeFazioForCongress.org/COVID-19. For more information on unemployment for Oregonians and to file a claim visit GovStatus.Egov.com/ORUnemployment_COVID19. And for more general resources on the coronavirus in Oregon visit Coronavirus.Oregon.Gov.