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Oregon’s Paid Leave Program Offers Frustration Instead of Payment

Wait times to speak to customer service representatives have risen to an average of more than 52 minutes, and as many as 1,500 people are experiencing delays due to the identity verification process.

Some Oregonians who applied for benefits through the state’s new paid family- and medical-leave program are reporting frustrating delays receiving their checks, technical issues during the application process and long wait times to speak to customer service representatives.

Trish Bowne, 40, said she applied for benefits Oct. 9 after she was hospitalized for a chronic health issue at the end of September. Two months later, her claim is still pending after a technical issue with the state’s identity verification process delayed her application for weeks. Bowne, a mother of two who lives in Roseburg, said she has only managed to keep up with her bills by putting expenses on credit cards and borrowing money from family members.

“It’s extremely stressful,” Bowne said. “Without family members, I’d be out on the street. Thankfully, I have that support system and I can put things on a credit card and pay it off. Plenty of people don’t have that option and when you’re dealing with a health issue this situation puts more stress on your body, which makes the healing harder.”

Karen Madden Humelbaugh, director of Paid Leave Oregon, said in October that she was aware of fewer than 100 people who had been held up in the application process longer than expected due to the program’s identity verification process or other snags with application forms and that program officials expected to work through that backlog within a week.

However, two months later Oregonians are still reporting significant issues accessing benefits and wait times to speak to customer service representatives have risen to an average of more than 52 minutes – up from the 7 seconds state officials touted as the call wait time when the program launched in the first week of September. Humelbaugh said the state is now aware of 1,500 people who are experiencing delays due to the identity verification process, the top cause of delays. She said she didn’t have data on the number of people facing delays for other reasons.

The program has been inundated with fraud attempts, contributing to the problems. Humelbaugh said the state has reassigned customer care staff to its investigations, fraud and complex claims teams to speed up that work.

A state dashboard shows that program officials have processed more than 28,000 applications, about 80 percent of the verified applications they’ve received, and paid out nearly $104 million so far. There are about 7,000 applications still waiting to be processed. The program has received an unspecified number of other applications not included on its dashboard because they haven’t yet gone through the identity verification process.

Humelbaugh said she is hopeful that the program will work through its backlog by January.

“We said all along there would be bumps as this is a new program and new technology, and we are working hard to improve not only the system, but our response time and customer service as our team becomes more experienced,” Humelbaugh said in an email. “While we are not content with the experience everyone is having, to have such a broad program pay out (nearly $104 million in benefits) in its first three months of existence is something we are proud of.”

But for those facing delays, the consequences can be severe.

On Oct. 15, a day before Geoff Jenks planned to apply for paid-leave benefits to take time off work to bond with his newborn daughter, Eva, the 36-year-old learned through a letter from the state that someone had fraudulently applied for benefits under his name. That fraud attempt stalled his own claim – an issue that was only cleared up in early December after KGW and two state lawmakers reached out to Paid Leave Oregon on his behalf. Humelbaugh said the program has improved its procedures to address these types of issues.

Jenks said he was told by program staff that his claim is now in the queue to be processed, but that it could still be weeks if not months before he receives benefits. Without that money coming in, Jenks, who works as an engineer, said he may have to forgo the leave he planned to take at the end of the month to bond with his daughter.

“It’s a really magical time in her development and my favorite part of each day is being home and being able to interact with her and my son,” Jenks said. “I was able to experience that bonding time with my son because I was working remotely during COVID. I’m worried I won’t have that with my daughter.”

A significant number of Oregonians facing benefit delays say they have run into issues with the state’s identity verification process, a step officials put in place to combat the large number of fraudulent application attempts. Bowne said her application was originally denied because the state said she hadn’t responded to a request to verify her identity – even though she said she never received a letter in the mail asking her to provide that verification. After appealing her denial and calling the customer service line, Bowne was finally able to submit documents to verify her identity.

But it wasn’t until Monday – weeks after she submitted that information – that she finally received a letter from the state saying that those documents had been received and asking if she’d like to drop her appeal. She still doesn’t know how long it will take for her to claim to be approved.

“The system needs work!” she wrote in an email to The Oregonian/OregonLive. “People need to be able to use it like intended.”

Humelbaugh said she has heard from some people who say they haven’t received verification letters in the mail, but that 70 percent of applicants respond to the letters within seven days, so the state believes the system is working.

However, the process of sending those letters through the mail instead of by email or through the program’s online portal has caused headaches for some Oregonians.

Madison Torres, 24, said both she and her partner, Dillon Werner, applied for benefits Oct. 5, a month before Torres was due to give birth to the couple’s son. Paid leave officials recommend that applicants apply 30 days before they anticipate taking leave because it takes 27 days on average to process claims, said program spokesperson Angela Yeager.

Torres’ son Hayden was born prematurely on Oct. 22 and airlifted from Medford to a Portland hospital due to a rare developmental lung anomaly, she said. Torres and her husband went with their son. When they finally returned home, they saw that they had received letters requesting identity verification from Paid Leave Oregon – and that their claims had been denied because they hadn’t responded to those letters.

Torres said she called the state four times – waiting on hold for about an hour each time – and twice sent emails through the state’s online system, Frances Online. The employees she spoke with helped her upload the appropriate verification documents, but couldn’t tell her when her claim would be processed. She said she never received responses to the emails she sent through Frances Online. Yeager said that officials recommend applicants communicate with employees about their claims through Frances Online, but Humelbaugh admitted that some correspondence through the online system had gone unassigned. She said the state brought on additional staff to navigate that backlog.

Torres said her claim was finally approved last week, but only after she resorted to reaching out to Paid Leave Oregon for help over Facebook. By the time she received approval, she had already run through her savings and was late on her December rent payment.

“I feel like (the state) is downplaying the situation and how severe it is and how it’s affecting families,” Torres said. “People are suffering.”

Corvallis resident Ken Shultz, 58, said he has also fallen behind on his bills due to the program’s delays. He said he applied for benefits Oct. 3 due to kidney disease, a medical condition that he said hospitalized him this week. He said he was able to verify his identity as requested and was finally approved for benefits three weeks ago, but is still waiting for his money to come through.

He hasn’t been able to pay his rent for December and is late on both his car and phone payments, he said. He said he has called the state several times, but hasn’t received a clear answer on when his benefits will show up.

“I’ve been living on savings and credit cards for the last seven weeks and that’s not cutting it,” Shultz said. “I’m at my wit’s end.”

NOTE: Paid Leave Oregon has created a web page with step by step guidance on the application process. To speed up the application process, Humelbaugh says applicants should ensure they correctly input critical information, including date of birth, Social Security number, legal name and employer name, and upload correct documents, which can be found online. She said applicants should keep their eyes out for letters in the mail, even if they told the program they only wanted to receive communication electronically.

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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