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Coronavirus in Oklahoma: Initial claims for unemployment down, but number of unresolved claims remains substantial

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Far fewer Oklahomans filed initial claims for unemployment insurance compensation last week than the week before.

Numbers released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Labor and the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission reported 32,794 Oklahomans filed new claims on the system during the week ending May 9, compared to an adjusted count of 93,885 who filed new claims the week ending May 2.

Data provided Thursday by the state agency shows more than 415,000 initial claims for compensation have been filed with the agency by Oklahomans since the week that ended Feb. 29.

At the end of this week, the unadjusted data kept by the commission showed its system was making continued claim payments to 176,194 Oklahomans for the week that ended May 9. Officials said about 60,000 claims that need resolution are pending within the system.

Some Oklahomans continue to encounter problems receiving meaningful help from agency employees to get the assistance they say they deserve.

One, Nancy Q. Summerlin, 67, said this week that she has been waiting a month to speak with someone at the commission who could help her with problems encountered as she seeks pandemic unemployment assistance offered through the federal CARES Act. Summerlin complained the online application process for pandemic assistance created by the state agency asks misleading questions.

“There is nothing written in the CARES Act that states that any one group ... should be given more attention than another. Manpower needs to be distributed equally,” Summerlin said.

She noted that while she has been able to visit with claims representatives at the commission periodically, she said they have uniformly consisted of people who only recently have been hired and can’t resolve her issues.

“They literally are nothing more than a human answering machine,” she said.

“Every day, I go in and tweak my application a little bit more ... without perjuring myself,” Summerlin said. “But it is very difficult when you have no idea when you are going to get a call, because it already has been a month.”

Another applicant who says she has waited a month to get a call to resolve her issue is just as frustrated.

Donna Jenkins Dawson, who lived in Oklahoma until November 2018 and now lives in South Carolina, said unemployment officials there mistakenly advised her to file a claim in her previous home state when she was furloughed from her job in February.

Dawson did, only to learn she doesn’t qualify for unemployment assistance through Oklahoma’s program.

Her problem, she explained via an email, is that she hasn’t been able to speak with anyone here who could drop her denied claim from the Sooner state’s system.

Until that happens, Dawson said she automatically is barred from getting any help in South Carolina.

“I have requested it to be canceled, by all means available,” Dawson wrote. “I am sure the number of calls and faxes to the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission are astronomical, but if many are for claim cancellations, which I am sure isn't a new procedure, those should be quickly done."

State officials attribute the 60,000 unresolved claims in Oklahoma’s system this week to various reasons, including that many are being looked at to determine if they were fraudulently made.

Suspicious claims are being investigated by a task force formed Friday and made up of the OESC, the state attorney general‘s office, and the Oklahoma State and Federal Bureaus of Investigation.

So far, 11,000 claims have been identified as fraudulent.

Additionally, other pending claims continue to be checked by about 150 employment specialists who work at the commission.

David Ostrowe, the Oklahoma Secretary of Digital Transformation and Administration, said claims like Summerlin’s are causing considerable issues.

"Most of the issues we’ve heard are on the PUA claims," Ostrowe said earlier this week. "About half of those applications received are incomplete, so we’ve sent emails back to them. We suspect some of those claims are not valid."

Ostrowe also said earlier this week the commission hopes to nearly double the number of workers reviewing claims in the coming weeks to continue driving down the number of unfulfilled requests.

He stated the amount of unresolved claims was 130,000 at its highest, and that this week’s count is down from nearly 86,000 unprocessed claims last week.

On Thursday, officials stated they have successfully paid out nearly $587 million in benefits (including about $355 million in federal pandemic assistance).

What’s provided

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program both is providing continuing claimants receiving traditional unemployment assistance with an additional $600 weekly in benefits and providing other applicants who have exhausted previously-filed state claims with federal aid for a 13-week period that can be backdated to March 29.

It also is providing the $600 in federal assistance to self-employed and gig-economy Oklahomans who have been idled because of the pandemic-caused economic collapse.

Before qualifying for that assistance at however, those people must apply and receive a denial for traditional unemployment assistance.

As businesses reopen, workers who decline to return to work because of COVID-19 related exposure fears could be denied continued assistance, officials reminded Oklahomans this week.

As for the most recent week’s initial claims count decline, Ostrowe said it is too early to determine whether or not it will become a trend.

“We are hopeful the incredible numbers of job loss and business closures will begin reversing course now that Oklahoma is moving into Phase II of Gov. (Kevin) Stitt’s reopening of the state,” he said. “Our neighbors are ready to get back to work and jumpstart our economy.”

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 ›