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Coronavirus in Oklahoma: State residents have claimed hundreds of millions in unemployment cash assistance

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More than 75,000 suspicious submissions involving unemployment insurance compensation requests made to the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission are under review by administrators and state and federal law enforcement officers.

But David Ostrowe, Oklahoma’s secretary of digital transformation, said Monday the commission’s staff continues to work as quickly as it can to pay legitimate claims to people who have been furloughed or laid off by businesses that were closed or slowed by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We paid more claims in the first three weeks of the pandemic than the commission did during all 12 months of 2019, and the agency has paid out over $432 million (in state and federal assistance) in the past six weeks,” Ostrowe said. “With that volume, there are bound to be individuals who try to game the system, but this is not impeding our ability to pay legitimate claims as quickly as possible,” he said.

The state paid 432,076 unemployment claims filed with the agency since March 15 and had 63,589 claims still pending, according to a release.

Of the more than $432 million paid out as part of the claims, about $258 million of that was provided by Congress through its Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, approved in March.

The remaining $175 million was supported by the state's unemployment fund.

Each business periodically pays taxes to the fund based on the numbers of jobs each has filled and the number of unemployment claims filed against it the previous year.

State law requires the amount collected through those taxes be large enough to keep the fund’s balance at least 3.5 times larger than its average annual payout during the previous five years.

If the fund were to dip too low, the commission (which consists of five appointed members) could require employers to pay in more.

In mid-March, state officials indicated there was more than $1 billion in the fund.

The most the commission paid out of the fund during any 12-month period during the past 20 years is about $500 million, officials have said.

Ostrowe and Shelley Zumwalt, the chief of innovation at Oklahoma’s Office of Management and Enterprise Services (OMES), said Monday they were saddened to see some claims made over the weekend by elected state officials that commission officials were more interested in catching fraudsters than they were in paying claims.

Ostrowe said nothing could be further from the truth.

He talked about how the commission and OMES staffers have been working for 60-plus days straight to overhaul the agency’s filing system, both to make it easier for people to use and to quickly turn away potential fraudulent claim attempts.

“We are moving, non-stop, as fast as we can," Ostrowe said.

So far, the site has detected and eliminated about 5,000 of those, he remarked.

One feature rolled out recently, for example, was one that encourages people who are getting assistance to create a username and password, enabling them to be able to check real time updates on the progress of their claims.

Ostrowe said the log-in is more secure and will eventually allow the user to be able to access his or her sensitive information at agencies throughout state government.

“We are trying to make it very responsive to the citizens’ needs to get them through the process immediately,” Ostrowe said.

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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 ›