In crisis, working people need help and benefits

By Don McIntosh

Eryn Byram’s job is to help union members in time of need. She’s never been busier.

Byram wears two hats. She’s director of Labor’s Community Services Agency, which puts donations from labor unions and the United Way to work helping union members who are facing hardship. She’s also a labor specialist for non-profit Worksystems Inc. in Oregon’s dislocated worker program. Normally that means addressing rooms full of workers facing mass layoffs—to tell them what benefits they’re entitled to and how to apply. But with in-person meetings banned during the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re taking place online and by phone through the Zoom remote conferencing service.

And the laid-off worker meetings are coming fast and furious. Just this week Byram gave presentations to several hundred laid-off movie and television workers in IATSE Local 488, nearly 1,000 laid-off hotel and airport concessions workers who belong to UNITE HERE Local 8, roughly 700 workers laid off from Daimler Trucks North America, and about 650 members of Laborers Local 483 who were laid off from the Oregon Zoo and Portland Parks and Recreation.

Amid so much need, it helps that the Oregon and Washington unemployment agencies were able to greatly relax requirements that normally apply to unemployment claims, and that a new federal expansion of benefits was signed into law March 27. Normally, workers receiving unemployment insurance benefits have to be actively looking for work, but when their employer has temporarily laid them off and expects to reopen, they just have to stay in contact with their employer and be available to work when called back. Also, normally you have to be “able and available” to work, meaning you’re not sick and you have adequate childcare. That’s being waived in the crisis: If you’re sick with the virus or being quarantined because of exposure, or you can’t work because school or day care closures left you without childcare, you can still collect unemployment benefits.

Unfortunately, unemployment agencies in both states are incredibly overwhelmed, with a tsunami of applicants in a single week. Offices are closed except by appointment, phone hold times are long, and claimants are being urged to apply online. Even there, the volume has at times been too great, with reports of occasional crashes in the Oregon Employment Department’s online claim portal. Application processing is also backlogged, so it may be several weeks before applicants get the checks they’re entitled to. Still, Byram says, it’s vital that workers be patient, apply, and continue to file weekly. Workers have a right to unemployment insurance benefits when they’re out of work through no fault of their own; that’s why employers pay into the fund.


HOW TO HELP UNION MEMBERS IN NEED

Labor’s Community Service Agency is appealing for donations to help workers impacted by coronavirus shutdowns. Contributed funds go to provide housing assistance, emergency childcare, food resources and more to working families in Oregon and Southwest Washington, such as laid-off janitors and maintenance workers, stagehands and theater workers, bus drivers, housekeepers, public school classified staff and teachers, and others. Contributions can be made online or by mail to LCSA, 9955 SE Washington, Suite 301, Portland OR 97216.

HOW TO APPLY FOR UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS

[File for unemployment in the state you work in, whether or not you live in that state.]

  • OREGON The best bet is online, or you can call 1-877-FILE-4-UI, but hold times are long.
  • WASHINGTON Apply online, or if you must, 800-318-6022 — phone wait times are long.

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