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Coronavirus in Oklahoma: Another record number of unemployment claims were filed by Oklahomans last week, data shows

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Yet another record number of people filed initial claims for unemployment insurance compensation last week, the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission reported Thursday.

For the week ending May 2, officials said 68,237 claims were filed, an increase of 15,737 from an adjusted number of 52,500 claims filed the week before.

As of the week ending on April 25, the OESC was making weekly compensation payments to 154,338 people, U.S. Department of Labor data released Thursday showed.

Nationally, the nation’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for that week was 15.5%, up 3.1% from the previous week’s total.

A statewide unemployment rate calculated using the week of April that includes the 12th day of the month will be published May 22, while county-by-county and metropolitan area unemployment rates for that same weekly period will be published June 3.

“The jump in initial unemployment claims show the impact the energy crisis and coronavirus are having on our state’s economy and the need for Oklahomans to safely return to their livelihoods,” David Ostrowe, Oklahoma’s digital transformation secretary, said on Thursday. “The record claims numbers include individuals who don’t qualify for regular unemployment benefits, but don’t completely account for the spike that occurred last week.”

Ostrowe said Thursday afternoon that the OESC has frozen about 86,000 recent and past claims made on its system that share common elements indicative they were fraudulently made.

Another 6,000, he said, have been positively verified as being fraudulent.

About 65,000 other claims, meanwhile, remain flagged within the agency’s system because of initial or continuing claims application inaccuracies that must be corrected before they can be paid.

While thousands of claims are cleared from that list daily, the turnover is high, as Oklahomans who file subsequent problem claims fall into that cue.

Ostrowe stressed OESC staff members are working as quickly as they can to reach claimants either by phone or email to get questions on flagged claims answered.

Additionally, he noted the system’s software was recently upgraded to enable it to generate automated emails to claimants that specifically tells each what the problem is with his or her application and how to correct the issue.

Impressive, or not?

Since the COVID-19 crisis began in mid-March, Ostrowe and other state officials said more than 361,000 weekly unemployment relief claims had been paid through the end of last week.

Almost $432 million in total benefits including about $258 million in federal pandemic assistance have been paid out, so far.

On Thursday, officials said the OESC began processing applications specifically seeking aid provided through the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program this week.

The federal aid is intended to provide assistance to both unemployed for-hire workers drawing unemployment or who have exhausted those benefits and to gig workers, independent contractors and self-employed individuals.

Claims that are approved are backdated to the date the individuals were idled, as far back as Jan. 27.

“We still have over 8,000 potential PUA applications that haven’t been completed,” Ostrowe said. “We encourage individuals who don’t qualify for regular unemployment to complete the PUA application.”

People need to be aware that they first must go through the process to file for regular unemployment assistance and be denied those benefits before they can successfully apply for the PUA assistance, officials said.

Claimants should go to ui.ok.gov and create an account with the Get Started button to connect their social security number and pull all their information into one location.

Yet despite OESC’s reported achievements so far, not all Oklahomans are happy with the agency’s efforts.

Oklahoma Rep. Mickey Dollens, D-Oklahoma City, has said he is frustrated with the agency after spending more than a month trying to help his constituents and other Oklahomans navigate a process that he asserts is poorly designed and staffed.

He detailed those issues in a social media post he made Sunday, where he wrote that the OESC’s continual application process changes have accomplished little more than just confusing applicants.

Dollens contends those changes aim to make the process more difficult in hopes of withholding or delaying assistance to residents.

The representative, who faces re-election this year, said he believes the agency and Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt have had time to improve the process since the pandemic started.

He also asserts the real risk when it comes to fraudulent claims is the agency’s antiquated system, not bad players who have filed fraudulent claims.

On Thursday, he added a post from a follower who described some of the issues she had been having with the system.

That individual wrote about website crashes she experienced when applying for assistance, emails she had gotten from OESC that had led her to a broken site and customer service issues she had experienced involving a third-party vendor that administers the debit card system Oklahoma uses to provide benefits to recipients.

“It completely feels like an intentional shell game,” the poster wrote. “They are saying that they are having fraudulent unemployment claims bogging them down, but I don’t believe that at all."

Ostrowe on Thursday said he understands that some people who have sought unemployment assistance are frustrated, but he said Thursday that accusations the Stitt administration is scheming up ways about how to use the money for purposes outside of unemployment compensation are completely off base.

“Whether or not you believe that we should have or not, government shut down the economy, caused the unemployment and suffering, and it is government’s obligation to fix this,” Ostrowe said. “Yes, I am focused on fraud, because I am trying to be a good steward of the federal and state dollars, but I also want to be sure the right people who deserve the money receive it. We want these claims processed as fast as humanly possible.”

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 ›

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