Oklahoma’s unemployment rate fell from 12.6% to 6.6% in June.
While those numbers have to be considered within context, it is still good news.
When Gov. Kevin Stitt pushed the state into reopening from the COVID-19 shutdown, it responded quickly. The state has the lowest unemployment rate in the seven-state region, two points lower than Texas. All of that deserves to be noted positively.
Any celebration, however, must be tempered by at least three concerns:
• The state’s workforce — those who either have jobs or don’t but are actively pursuing them — dropped by more than 57,000 workers in the same period. That’s a workforce decline of more than 73,000 in one year, which is unsustainable.
A workforce loss could represent that people have either left the state or have given up on finding a job, neither of which is good.
• For many who are still out of work, the state’s unemployment compensation system remains dysfunctional. The Oklahoma Employment Security Commission is making a good-faith recovery effort with mass expos around the state, but far too many people remain locked out of benefits that they have earned and need because of the OESC’s technology failings and its susceptibility to fraud.
The slowness of the system’s recovery is not acceptable. It’s economically inefficient; it intensifies workforce discouragement.
• A big one-month reduction in the unemployment isn’t worth much if it can’t be maintained, and the state’s soaring COVID-19 infections rates and the diminishing number of hospital beds portend trouble ahead. We would feel much more secure about the state’s economic trajectory if Stitt had put a statewide mask order in place comparable to the one recently approved by the Tulsa City Council.
All Oklahomans should be glad to see the state’s unemployment rate drop as rapidly as it has. If the state can maintain that sort of recovery, happy days will indeed be here again soon. Achieving that, however, will require a healthy, growing and efficient workforce, and we’re not sure the elements are in place to make that possible.