Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Oregon Law Center has heard from countless Oregonians about their struggles with the unemployment benefits system. Below, you can learn more about our litigation in this area.
Although we are not currently adding any plaintiffs to the cases listed below, we are looking for people who want to share their stories about problems with overpayments. To share your overpayment story, click here.
Please note that the overpayments survey is not a way to get legal help or advice. If you are experiencing unemployment benefits problems such as long delays, getting help in your preferred language, or overpayments, contact your local legal aid office or call the Public Benefits Hotline at 1-800-520-5292.
Flores de Vega v. Gerstenfeld
Filed: July 7, 2020
Class Certified: December 1, 2020
Class Action Settlement Approved: March 17, 2021
In the Flores de Vega lawsuit, OLC represented 19 courageous Oregonians who decided to sue the Oregon Employment Department because, months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency was taking an unreasonably long time to pay out benefits or issue official benefit denials, and was failing to make unemployment benefits accessible to people who don’t speak English. The plaintiffs alleged that the agency was failing to meet its obligation, under the state law governing unemployment benefits, to “promptly” make a decision to pay or deny each claim. The court agreed that the case should be a class action – a lawsuit intended to address harm to a large group of people, not just the named plaintiffs – because tens of thousands of Oregonians had been waiting months for benefits, just like petitioners.
The court approved a settlement on March 16, 2021. OED agreed to speed up its unemployment benefits decisions and to make it easier for people with limited English proficiency to apply for unemployment benefits. The settlement also increased transparency and accountability by requiring the agency to publicly report on its progress under the settlement (this reporting requirement ended after two years, in March 2023.) The settlement provided for policy changes only; individual class members did not get any money from the settlement, other than the unemployment benefits they were eligible to receive.
Since the Flores de Vega case settled, we have seen major improvements to Oregon’s unemployment benefits system. These include:
- Faster first payments and faster adjudication of eligibility issues, with Oregon now performing much better compared to other states than it did before the pandemic;
- Monitoring of claims “in suspense” to make sure people whose benefits stop after they are found eligible do not wait weeks or months before the issue is resolved; and
- Improved access to the system for Oregonians who communicate in a language other than English, including access to use all functions of the online claim system in Spanish and translation of the application and online information materials into more than 15 languages.
The Flores de Vega settlement lasted two years and ended March 17, 2023.
Wurtz v. Gerstenfeld
Filed: May 19, 2021
Settled: June 8, 2021
This case involved OED’s implementation of a requirement that recipients of PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) submit “proof of employment” – for example, documents showing self-employment earnings or a job offer that was withdrawn because of the pandemic. OED’s notices about the new requirements were confusing, contained incorrect information, and didn’t reach everyone who had received PUA benefits. And when OED rejected “proof of employment” documentation, the agency did not explain why the proof was insufficient so the person had a fair chance to fix the problem.
OLC and attorneys at Legal Aid Services of Oregon represented four individual plaintiffs who were among thousands of Oregonians who had lost their PUA benefits despite trying to following the agency’s confusing guidance. We also sued on behalf of Northwest Workers’ Justice Project, a nonprofit that had helped countless unemployed workers attempt to navigate the unemployment benefits system during the pandemic. The plaintiffs alleged that OED had violated their constitutional right to due process.
Within weeks of filing, the case settled. The agency extended the proof of employment deadline, giving everyone until September 4, 2021 to submit the required documents. OED also agreed to make decisions about whether documents satisfied the proof of employment requirement within 2 weeks, and to explain any problem with the documentation in a written decision so the claimant had a chance to fix the issue.
Casillas v. Gerstenfeld
Filed: June 9, 2022
In Casillas, OLC and attorneys at Legal Aid Services of Oregon represent six plaintiffs who are mired in OED’s confusing system for establishing and collecting overpayments of unemployment benefits. An overpayment happens when the agency pays a claimant benefits, then later decides the claimant should not have received those benefits. The stakes are high: overpayments from the pandemic era often total $10,000 or more, and overpayments can be collected through reduction of future unemployment checks, interception of tax refunds, and even garnishment of paychecks and bank accounts. The complaint alleges that OED is violating the Due Process Clause of the Constitution, including by collecting overpayments before the debt is final under state law and by sending notices and billing statements so confusing that claimants cannot understand why OED thinks they owe an overpayment or how much they might have to pay back. The plaintiffs are asking the court to order OED to change its system so claimants who may owe overpayments get clear and timely information about the alleged debt and are not forced to repay until they have had a fair chance to challenge the overpayment.
The Casillas case is ongoing. The plaintiffs defeated the state’s motion to dismiss in December 2022 and Multnomah County Circuit Court has set trial for October 2023. We are not adding new plaintiffs to the case at this time, but we are looking for people who want to share their stories about problems with overpayments. To share your overpayment story, click here.