Unexpected demand draining state unemployment fund

SALEM — An Oregon unemployment fund created this year for people who have been out of work for at least two years will probably run out of money soon because of unexpectedly high demand, officials said Tuesday.

The program's $30 million in funding is on track to dry up about two weeks early, as soon as the week of May 14, the Oregon Employment Department said.

"We still have a lot of Oregonians that, through no fault of their own, are out of work or struggling to find jobs and needed help to put food on the table and a roof over their heads," said Sen. Diane Rosenbaum, the Senate Democratic leader who sponsored legislation creating the program. "So this money, even though it's not going to go quite as far as we thought, I think it's going to help families stay afloat."

Experts projected that 17,000 people would qualify for an average weekly check of $280, but by Friday more than 22,000 people had been approved. The program's funding is capped, so checks will stop going out when the coffers are drained.

State lawmakers approved the funding in March, hoping it would give needed unemployment checks to the people who have been unemployed the longest — those who have exhausted all 99 weeks of benefits that are traditionally available, including people who have been continuously unemployed since 2008.

The high demand is an indication of how many people are still in need of assistance, even as the economy slowly rebounds, officials said.

Seasonally adjusted unemployment was 10 percent in March, the most recent month for which data are available. The number has trended down from a Great Recession high of 11.6 percent in June 2009 but is still higher than the national average of 8.8 percent.

Employers dropped 2,500 jobs in March after five consecutive months of gains.

Job placement officials are contacting people who have applied for the emergency unemployment benefits, said Craig Spivey, a spokesman for the Employment Department.

"We're always constantly trying to reach out to anybody who's unemployed, whether they're on unemployment or not, to get into our Worksource centers and to help them find work," Spivey said of the office that connects the unemployed with employers looking for help.

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