Furloughed workers tighten belts waiting for WorkShare benefits

By Don McIntosh

When Portland Federation of School Professionals Local 111 President Belinda Reagan first heard about the Work Share program, she saw it as a win-win. Her fellow union members — support workers at Portland Public Schools — would be furloughed one day a week starting May 4 and save the district money at a time of looming budget cuts, and in return would collect a day’s worth of weekly unemployment insurance plus the $600 weekly COVID unemployment bonus. At the time, they were told unemployment checks would start in two weeks.

Two months later, she wishes she’d known that members would face belt-tightening before the promised aid would arrive. When unemployment checks still hadn’t arrived at the beginning of July, Reagan says she heard from at least 65 members.

Their hardship is real. “For people who are living on $14, $16 an hour, to lose that money on furlough, it’s devastating,” Reagan said. “We have a lot of single mothers working as education assistants at very low salaries.”

Still, Reagan said she doesn’t regret agreeing to the furlough: The union’s executive board had just a few days to decide, and members will come out ahead in the end. They’ll still get everything they were promised once Employment Department employees get through the backlog. The tardy payments aren’t arriving in one lump sum. The first checks began to arrive the second week of July.

Workers at the City of Portland are in similar straits: Furloughs cut their pay at the beginning of June, and the City has been submitting claims to the Employment Department, but workers were still waiting for unemployment checks as of mid-July.

“Nobody has any benefits yet,” said Rob Martineau, president of AFSCME Local 189, the largest union at the City of Portland. “There’s definitely frustration.”

“We kind of expect people will be done with their furloughs before they see any unemployment benefits,” Martineau said.

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