(TNS) — The Oregon Employment Department missed its goal for the third straight week in processing thousands of unpaid benefits claims for self-employed workers who are out of a job during the pandemic.

And the beleaguered department’s phone lines suffered fresh outages Tuesday and Wednesday, making it impossible for callers to reach the state to resolve problems with their claims.

Still, there are signs of progress that suggest Oregon is beginning to get a handle on the huge volume of unpaid jobless claims that left tens of thousands of unemployed workers going without income through the heart of the pandemic.

The department has now paid $3.2 billion in benefits since Oregon began its shutdown in March. This time last month there were 70,000 self-employed workers waiting for aid under the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program that Congress established in March. Many of those had been waiting for several months for their checks.

The department has whittled that backlog down to 44,000 unprocessed claims, moving more slowly than anticipated. The trajectory for clearing those claims is accelerating, though, and interim director David Gerstenfeld said Wednesday he is “increasingly optimistic” of working through those 70,000 claims by the Aug. 8 target date he set in June.

“We’re turning the corner,” Gerstenfeld said on his weekly media call Wednesday.

The department has been aided in part by a $240,000, Google-based technology upgrade implemented last Friday to automate some parts of the claims processing for self-employed workers.

In at least a few cases, the new system appears to have interrupted benefits payments people had been receiving. But Gerstenfeld said it’s been a huge net positive overall, with automation freeing up his staff to begin working unprocessed claims and accelerate payments.

State lawmakers approved $500 relief payments last week for as many as 70,000 Oregonians who have been waiting the longest for their unemployment benefits. State administrators said at the time it could take several weeks to begin payments, but the Legislature’s Democratic leadership indicated Wednesday they have made good progress and hope to launch the program by the end of July.

As Oregon makes advances in other areas, though, the employment department is encountering new problems.

For example, the department has whittled the number of regular, unprocessed jobless claims down from more than 100,000 last spring to just 2,600 now.

Processed claims aren’t always paid, though. Some need an additional review called “adjudication.” Gerstenfeld said the typical waiting period for adjudicated claims has grown from 10 weeks to as many as 14 weeks – meaning many people with legitimate claims must wait months to see their benefits.

Every Oregon claim is still subject to a one-week period when benefits aren’t paid, even though Congress funded a waiver of the so-called “waiting week” in March. The state’s antiquated computers haven’t been able to accommodate the change.

The employment department says it will begin attempting to address the waiting week issue in August, but has cautioned it may not be able to implement the waiver by a federal deadline at the end of the year. That would leave hundreds of millions of dollars in federal benefits for Oregonians permanently unpaid, unless the state can secure additional latitude from the feds.

Additionally, this week’s phone outages exacerbated one of the department’s thorniest issues.

The department relies primarily on phone calls to resolve questions about unpaid claims and the phones lines have been jammed since March due to the huge volume of new jobless claims and the state’s byzantine system for processing them.

Also Wednesday, Gerstenfeld disclosed that three more employment department workers have tested positive for the coronavirus. That brings the total number of infections among its staff to 16.

The outbreaks have slowed claims processing, at least modestly, and prompted the closure of the department’s Gresham facility earlier this month. Gerstenfeld said that office will reopen Friday, and said the department now requires its staff to wear masks in most situations.

“We’ve been urging these measures for some time and they’re now mandatory,” Gerstenfeld said.

©2020 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.