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COVID-19 has affected almost 275,000 Oklahoma jobs, but governor says unemployment funds are 'limited' and pushes return to work

COVID-19 has affected almost 275,000 Oklahoma jobs, but governor says unemployment funds are 'limited' and pushes return to work

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Oklahoma State Capitol

The state of Oklahoma has received 1,556,747 Economic Impact Payments (EIPs) worth more than $2.7 billion, the U.S. Department of the Treasury and IRS announced Friday. Tulsa World File

First-time unemployment claims continue to be filed at a rapid pace in Oklahoma, but the total number declined for the third consecutive week.

More than 42,000 first-time claims were filed last week. It’s a 10% drop from the previous week, but that total remains nearly five times higher than the 1991 record for first-time state filings before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Claims seeking continuing unemployment insurance continued to rise, surpassing more than 130,000 for the first time. Almost 275,000 Oklahomans have faced job-related setbacks during the outbreak so far.

However, the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission said “it’s important for claimants to answer the call to return to work” as businesses begin reopening under Gov. Kevin Stitt’s three-phase plan to restart the economy.

“Although our weekly number of initial claims have fallen each of the last three weeks, this has been a record-setting month for unemployment in Oklahoma,” OESC Executive Director Robin Roberson said Thursday. “We are certainly looking forward to getting residents back in the job market in a safe, measured approach. In the meantime, we’re relentlessly working to resolve eligibility issues and connect claimants with benefits.”

The OESC released numbers showing that in the filing week ending Saturday, there was an unadjusted total of 42,577 first-time jobless claims. The number was a decrease of 4,119 from the the revised level of 46,696 for the week of April 18. Claims for that week were adjusted upward from the initial report of 40,297.

Numbers on the OESC’s website have not yet been seasonally adjusted, referring to the statistical practice of accounting for hiring fluctuations based on the change in weather seasons. The advance unadjusted number for continued jobless claims in Oklahoma totaled 134,284 as of Thursday, which is about a 20% increase from the revised level of 112,311 for the week of April 18.

Nationally, 30.3 million people have filed first-time unemployment claims since mid-March, including a seasonally-adjusted number of 3.839 million for the week ending Saturday, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The number represents about one in five American workers whose jobs have been impacted due to shutdowns enacted to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to The Washington Post.

The OESC warned in Thursday’s announcement that not returning to work when it is available could be deemed “refusal to work” and disqualify applicants from receiving benefits. It encouraged employers to report such activities to the OESC, with OESC Deputy Director Teresa Keller saying nearly an hour into a public Zoom conference meeting recently that it’s been a concern to businesses that workers could receive more money from benefits than earned wages.

Keller said she was filling in for Roberson during the meeting, as Roberson was out for health reasons.

The meeting drew scrutiny after Keller also raised the possibility of the state asking the federal government to stop giving Oklahoma money for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits, which give $600 per week to eligible applicants, before the program ends July 31.

The Frontier, a Tulsa-based online news outlet, first reported on the comments Tuesday. In response, Oklahoma Secretary of Commerce Sean Kouplen took to social media and said the state would not reduce the payments sent to claimants.

Asked about the issue in a news conference Thursday afternoon, Stitt said “I’m not familiar with any waiver” request from anyone in the state related to pandemic assistance funds. He said the government “won’t be heavy-handed” and maintained that “We want Oklahomans to get these employment benefits, for sure.”

“But unemployment has a limited amount of funds, and the idea of unemployment is to bridge the gap between one job to another job,” Stitt said, later adding: “When you do get offered a job, you know, part of our standards are that unemployment is there until you get re-offered a job.

“So it’s a balancing act as we’re trying to get those funds out the door. We obviously want them back working in the workforce as quickly as possible.”

House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, issued a statement before the news conference calling for Oklahomans to receive a livable wage.

“It is appalling that in the middle of this pandemic members of Governor Stitt’s administration are talking about Oklahoma’s workforce like they are societal leeches,” she said. “The notion that Oklahomans are choosing to stay home and collect unemployment benefits instead of returning to work is insulting to the millions of Oklahomans just trying to figure out how to survive both physically and financially.”

Since the week ending March 21, the state has received more than 260,000 initial jobless claim filings. The record during a seven-day period is 60,534 and was set during the week ending April 4. Before the COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States, Oklahoma’s state record for initial unemployment claim filings was 9,778 in January 1991.

The OESC said last week it would begin issuing Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits this week to those, such as independent contractors, who don’t qualify for traditional unemployment payments. To that end, the agency has allowed workers to apply directly for aid from the funds and has said those workers will receive backdated benefits for the weeks they were out of work if they return to their jobs during the state’s phased reopening process.

“We know Oklahomans are struggling with how to care for their families and meet financial obligations during this crisis,” Roberson said. “We are moving mountains to resolve claim eligibility issues and transforming the agency website to improve self-help options, provide claims status updates, and ensure direct deposit capability to offset vendor and mail delays in receiving a prepaid debit card to access paid benefits.”

Before the change, the OESC had to first determine an applicant was ineligible for traditional unemployment funds before they could apply for money from Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. The Department of Labor announced Wednesday that Pandemic Unemployment Assistance funds are now being disbursed to approved applicants in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Typically, the OESC processes 1,500 to 2,000 initial claims per week but said last week it has already processed more than 160,000 in April alone — more than the agency traditionally processes in a calendar year. The agency said Thursday it has redeployed more than 300 employees to focus on claims processing and unemployment fraud, as the OESC has said it’s identified at least 3,000 suspicious claim applications.


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Samantha Vicent 918-581-8321

samantha.vicent@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @samanthavicent

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