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Coronavirus in Oklahoma: Department of Labor tells states to limit information provided regarding unemployment

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As unemployment insurance claims spike across the nation, the U.S. Department of Labor is instructing state agencies to limit the amount of information released to the public.

According to an email the Department of Labor sent to state agencies across the country last week, unemployment insurance claim information should be released only once a week and claim levels should be described in generalities such as "very high" or "large increase" when responding to media questions on the subject.

"The data from these reports is monitored closely by policymakers and financial markets to determine appropriate actions in light of fast changing economic conditions," the email said.

"States should not provide numeric values to the public prior to the release of the embargoed claims data," the email said.

Numbers are to be made public only after the Department of Labor releases the information at 7:30 a.m. CT on Thursdays.

The Department of Labor asked that states provide any available information on COVID-19 related claims along with details on heavily impacted industries.

"These details in particular will be important to policymakers as legislation is developed to assist those most impacted by this unprecedented event," the email said.

This edict comes as a surprise to many state employment officials, and has led to frustration by some who feel weekly postings are not sufficient for providing timely information.

“In light of the rapidly changing situation concerning the coronavirus, the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission feels it is necessary to release daily data on the number of initial and continued unemployment claims being filed,” stated John E. Miley in an email sent Friday to Department of Labor officials. Miley is a lawyer with the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission.

"What is the legal authority for the (U.S. Department of Labor) to impose the embargo of data?" Miley asked. "What are the consequences if a state does not abide by the embargo?"

Miley's email went unanswered. A followup email by the Oklahoma agency was sent Tuesday pleading for the ability to share the information "with the people we all serve."

Gay M. Gilbert, administrator of unemployment insurance at the Department of Labor, replied to the second email saying the Department of Labor's longstanding policy is that states should not release claims data prior to the national release.

Not everyone has heard of the policy.

"I have never dealt with this before, even during the recession," a Colorado employment official stated in an email obtained by The Oklahoman.

Cumulative numbers are normally posted during a set time weekly, according to Oklahoma Employment Security Commission Executive Director Robin Roberson. But she was unaware of any restrictions to providing additional information throughout the week.

Gilbert did not respond to a request by The Oklahoman for a copy of the "longstanding policy" by the time this article was prepared for publication.

“We expect to release additional guidance on this issue shortly,” Gilbert stated in her email to the Oklahoma officials.

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Aerial image of the Oklahoma City skyline. [Dave Morris/The Oklahoman]

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Jack Money

Jack Money has worked for The Oklahoman for more than 20 years. During that time, he has worked for the paper’s city, state, metro and business news desks, including serving for a while as an assistant city editor. Money has won state and regional... Read more ›

David Dishman

Business Writer David Dishman has worked as a journalist in Oklahoma since 2014 covering business, education, local government, healthcare and more. He worked as a reporter in southeast Oklahoma before joining the business team at The Oklahoman in... Read more ›