By Master Sgt. John Hughel, Oregon National Guard
/ Published August 31, 2020
SALEM, Ore -- When the country was struggling to recover during the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Social Security bill, which contained the establishment of Unemployment Insurance (UI) for millions of out of work Americans.
The law was enacted 85 years ago this month, and establish a federal-state joint ‘safety net’ structure, which was funded by both federal and state taxes and designed to safeguard individuals against economic distress for short periods of time. Fast-forward to the present and the need for this program has never been more crucial with persistent job losses due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
This is where the Oregon Army and Air Guardsmen have stepped up to help their fellow citizens, assisting the Oregon Employment Department (OED) process these record numbers of UI claims.
“It’s a combination of factors that have us supporting this mission and has evolved over time,” said 2nd Lt. Joshua Osborn, assigned to Bravo Troop, 1st Squadron, 82nd Cavalry Regiment, and the officer in charge of more than a dozen Guardsmen on the UI support team. “We are now in a ‘5th phase,’ as this group has shown that they can take on more tasks.”
An estimated 350,000 Oregonians have been pushed out of the work force as the COVID-19 outbreak has placed added stains on a system that was last redesigned in the 1990s. On May 31, Oregon Governor Kate Brown announced she had replaced Oregon Employment Department director Kay Erickson with her deputy, David Gerstenfeld to bring new leadership into the agency and improve procedures, helping solve the considerable number of unpaid jobless claims and substantial time callers were on hold to get a response back from the agency.
“We got started when the Oregon Employment Department was identifying people that needed to be contacted; whether is was letting them know the status of their application or find something that was missing in their application that was holding it up,” said Osborn, explaining how the responsibilities have progressed during the COVID-19 epidemic. “We have now gained system access to processing those applications and can take them all the way through to payment.”
With a civilian background in financial service, Osborn noted that the team was working through a list of nearly 5,900 applications, and when accomplished, they are given another project to complete. “The biggest issue(s) we work on are seeing which claims go to pandemic assistance or whether they go to another program.”
With the innovative approach to utilize the Oregon National Guard to help with claims, OED Communications Director Melanni Rosales responded to several questions about the new relations and working with members of the military.
“The National Guard has been wonderful to work with. They've been a great addition, eager to adept to new types of work, and very flexible with continuing missions and changing priorities and duties,” said Rosales.
She went on to advocate for the ‘creativity and innovation’ that the service members have brought, stating, “They made recommendations for adjustments wherever processes could be improved…overall this program has been a great success.”
As the Guardsmen integrated more into the organization, Osborn described how they were able to track the team’s progress and impact.
“We know that we are making a noticeable contribution because OED director David Gerstenfeld routinely sends out organizational emails letting people know how we’re doing and if the organization is on track or not,” said Osborn.
With having a diverse assembly of Army and Air Guards members on the UI team, each brings unique proficiencies to the group. Oregon Air National Guard Tech. Sgt. Isabell Borrego, assigned to the 142nd Wing Mission Support Group, has been using her summer breaks from teaching school to support a variety of Federal and State missions. She was brought on initially to support OED then needed to complete training in case needed for fire support later in the summer.
“I just recently was ‘Red Card’ re-certified for wildland firefighting; so in-between days I came off from one set of orders here (at UI), took a pause, then took the refresher course over the weekend-- only to then restart the next week with the unemployment insurance team again,” she said.
As a third grade teacher at St. Joseph Catholic School in Salem, Oregon, Borrego has 20 years of military experience, both on active duty and serving in the Army and Air National Guard. A ‘Jill of all Trades,’ she is a quiet but natural leader in the Services Flight, traveling one summer to the Canadian Northwest Territories as a cook, and then directing training with the Oregon CBRNE Enhanced Response Force Packages (CERFP). If that’s not keeping her busy enough, then volunteering to support wildland firefighting missions has: first in 2017 on the Chetco Bar Fire in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, and the following summer near Grants Pass, on the Taylor Creek Fire.
“The camaraderie is great, and that’s what I like the most about working on these distinctive types of short term projects,” she explained. “With this work for OED, I’ve actually learned a great deal about accounting and working with a variety of electronic spread sheets.”
It’s this type of versatility and a sense of empathy that is needed for this kind of work, as Borrego described how it’s important to listen to people’s struggles both to diagnose their unique situation and offering a supportive sense of confidence in solving the problem.
“There is a great sense of gratification, we get to help people with their claims by understanding their stories and where the complications are,” she said, describing the balanced approach to filing the cases. “Plus -- the people at OED are really nice and helpful, they answer all of our questions when there is a concern or something are team is unsure of.”
As the current mission is scheduled to last though the end of September, Borrego said in jest, that she never would have thought, “the Guard would have been called out to help fix unemployment insurance problems!”
“Overall, I am really pleased with our numbers, we have such a diverse team with different backgrounds and we all have pulled together so well,” said Borrego, in summarizing the work demands. “It really opens the doors how the Guard can help out in other ways. We all joined the to help out our state and it feels good to actually support an important state mission.”