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Coronavirus in Oklahoma: OESC Interim director claims progress on unemployment claims, but won't clarify how much

The interim director of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission said Monday the agency is making progress on clearing a backlog of tens of thousands pending claims.

But Shelley Zumwalt, who recently took over the agency’s top administrative position on an interim basis, declined to specify how many Oklahomans had been helped during her first week on the job.

Instead, she told reporters during a news conference Monday that agency officials had managed to clear about 29% of pending claims involving both regular and pandemic unemployment benefits. She did not explain how many had been helped, or how many remained in need of help. In recent weeks, The Oklahoman reported the backlog has been between 45,000 and 130,000 Oklahomans who are filing claims but have not yet received their financial assistance.

Part of the issue behind providing a number of specific people who had been helped, she said, is that a single person may have filed multiple flagged claims that had been cleared.

As of May 22, nearly 15,000 claims had been identified as fictitious. Another 80,000 claims were being investigated at the time, which is a part of nearly 200,000 claims to have been denied, The Oklahoman reported.

She said reasons a claim could be pending could range from it appearing to be fraudulent because of a bad phone number or other suspicious information to just simply because an incorrect answer was provided by an applicant to a question.

“We removed flags in the system that were not pertinent to determining eligibility,” Zumwalt said, discussing how the agency was able to clear such a sizable amount of pending claims.

“Some people will be able to file for multiple weeks of backdated claims they previously wouldn’t have been able to apply for,” she said.

Part of the issue with the system, Zumwalt said, is that some of the questions are difficult to understand.

She said agency officials are working to rewrite those questions and hope to roll those changes out this week.

Also, the agency now is requiring “tier two” customer service assistants, who normally haven’t been catching initial calls during the pandemic, to start taking those once again.

Zumwalt said that could potentially increase call wait times for those who reach out on the phone for help, but said they will still have a better customer service experience if they can be helped the first time they call.

Daunting task

The amount of work faced by the commission’s staff has been daunting.

Data provided last week by the state agency shows more than 484,000 initial claims for compensation have been filed with the agency since the week that ended Feb. 29.

In early April, the commission turned to the Oklahoma Office of Management and Enterprise Services (OMES) to help it begin to redesign its information technology systems to improve its abilities to handle a heavier volume of claims.

It also began adding additional people to catch phone calls at the agency, though those who were added only were capable of taking a name and contact information from callers, assigning them a trouble ticket number for use as part of a later call where a specialist could help the caller address his or her claim issues.

By mid-April, the agency also began reporting it was experiencing issues with fraudulent claims.

At one point since the pandemic started, the number of pending claims reached 130,000, while a significant number of suspicious claims continue to be investigated by a task force that includes the OESC, the state attorney general's office, and the Oklahoma State and Federal Bureaus of Investigation.

On May 19, federal officials attributed fake unemployment claims filed in Oklahoma and other states to a well-organized Nigerian fraud ring.

In an alert sent out by the U.S. Secret Service, officials said besides Oklahoma, Washington, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Wyoming and Florida were other states that had been affected.

The OESC voted the same week to turn formal control of its information technology systems to the OMES.

On May 22, Robin Roberson, the agency’s executive director only for a few months, resigned from that post while there were still about 45,000 pending claims.

On Monday, Zumwalt said she called the news conference in order to let Oklahomans know OESC continues to work on issues with pending and fraudulent claims, and is working with the vendor who handles its payment program to resolve issues there.

“We are not planting a flag in the sand to say we are done,” Zumwalt said. “We will continue to move quickly to address these issues and work through the claims backlog that has been an issue for so many months.”

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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 ›