With layoffs and quarantines looming from the COVID-19 pandemic, Oregon policymakers should modify the state’s Unemployment Insurance (UI) program to help workers and businesses cope with the crisis, according to a new report by Oregon Center for Public Policy.
“The COVID-19 pandemic threatens not only the health, but also the economic well-being of Oregon families, especially those living paycheck-to-paycheck,” said Center policy analyst Janet Bauer. “One of the steps Oregon can take to help workers and businesses weather this crisis is making certain changes to Unemployment Insurance.”
One of the changes the report recommends is to extend UI benefits to workers who are quarantined. While Oregon law provides for paid sick leave, the Center noted that the law does not cover all workers, and those covered at most can accrue five days of paid sick leave in a year. That is not enough to cover a 14-day quarantine, what health experts consider reasonable, the report said.
“Our UI system can fill the gap,” Bauer said. “Extending UI benefits to quarantined workers would help families cover the bills during this time of crisis, making it more likely that workers would be able to carry out the quarantine.”
Because greater use of unemployment benefits by workers means higher UI tax rates for employers, the Center also called on the state to waive UI rate increases during the period of emergency.
The report proposed several other changes to the UI program. These included eliminating the rule of not paying benefits during the first week when workers meet all the conditions of the UI program, the so-called “waiting week” rule; suspending during this time of emergency the requirement that laid off workers search for work; and temporarily amending the definition of “good cause” to quit a job.
The report also urged the state to promote Oregon’s Work Share program, which can help both employers and workers during an economic downturn. Under Work Share, instead of laying off some employees, an employer needing to reduce staff cuts the hours for a group of workers, who then receive partial UI benefits to supplement their earnings.
While some of the changes proposed in the report could be done administratively, Bauer said others likely require the legislature to convene in a special session.
“The health and economic crisis posed by COVID-19 requires state action to protect families and businesses,” Bauer said. “We urge the Governor to act within her authority to strengthen the state’s UI system and, if necessary, call a special session promptly.”
The Oregon Center for Public Policy (www.ocpp.org) is a non-partisan, nonprofit institute that does in-depth research and analysis on budget, tax, and economic issues. The Center’s goal is to improve decision making and generate more opportunities for all Oregonians.