Oklahoma's system continues to deal with a high number of unemployment claims, latest data shows
Oklahoma continues to carry a high number of people that are receiving compensation on unemployment insurance as the clock ticks down on a key extra benefit provided through the CARES Act.
Data released Thursday by the U.S. Labor Department and the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission showed much the same story across the nation as the economy continues to struggle to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Oklahoma, 178,794 residents were eligible to receive continued compensation through its unemployment insurance program during the week that ended June 13.
The previous week, 173,361 were being carried by the program. Authorities initially had estimated 167,247 were doing so.
Authorities said 49,208 Oklahomans filed initial claims during the week ending June 20, down 35,571 from the previous week. Nationally, about 1.5 million people filed initial claims that week, down slightly from the week before.
The Labor Department said 19.5 million Americans were getting continuing benefits under unemployment insurance programs during the week that ended June 13, a decrease of 767,000 from the previous week’s revised level.
The Labor Department estimated the nation’s unemployment rate for the week ending June 13 at 13.4%.
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The Oklahoma Employment Security Commission continues to deal with a significant number of pending claims.
On Thursday, Interim Director Shelley Zumwalt said the agency is dealing with about 5,000 claims that need intervention before they can be processed through the system.
Zumwalt said an additional 45,000 claims exist in the system where an applicant either failed to finish the filing process or never initiated a weekly benefits claim once they had completed the initial filing process.
As for called-in assistance requests, Zumwalt said the number of pending requests remains significantly higher, but added the agency believes many of those are duplicates and that others are related to the pending claims outlined above.
“It is our job to figure out what assistance those people need and then provide it,” she said.
Zumwalt said Thursday the agency’s decision to reopen its American Job Centers across the state has provided a way for Oklahomans who don’t use English as a primary language or who couldn’t file for benefits online for various reasons to obtain help.
“We have noticed that a substantial number of people who have been showing up at those centers fall into those categories,” she said.
Claims assistance representatives at the centers are Level 2 capable, meaning they can work with applicants to resolve issues.
Other Level 2 capable representatives continue to work through requests for called-in assistance, she said.
Meanwhile, two of the job centers were closed on Thursday. The center in Guymon, Zumwalt said, has not reopened because of the spike in COVID-19 cases that community continues to experience.
The agency also closed its center at 7401 NE 23 in Oklahoma City Thursday after learning that one of its employees had tested positive for COVID-19.
Zumwalt said center officials took information from people waiting there Thursday to reach out to them on the phone to handle their issues. The center will remain closed through Friday.
Traditionally employed Oklahomans who have been idled because of COVID-19 are receiving regular unemployment insurance benefits that are calculated based upon their wage history. Benefits under that program are exhausted after 26 weeks.
State officials said Thursday that the OESC had processed 586,460 unemployment insurance claims between March 1 and June 21, approving 234,437 and denying 350,041, with 1,982 claims pending for review.
Self-employed and gig economy Oklahomans who were idled because of COVID-19 are getting assistance through the CARES Act created Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program. Benefit rates are determined based on documented proof of earnings those applicants provide and are capped at 39 weeks.
Officials said Thursday the agency had processed 46,518 PUA claims between March 1 and June 21, with 12,221 approved, 7,145 denied and 990 under review. Agency officials said a majority of the remaining PUA claims that were created have not had any weekly assistance claims submitted.
Claimants under both of those programs are receiving an extra $600 weekly through the CARES Act-provided Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program. That program’s funding is available through the filing week that ends July 25 in Oklahoma and most other states across the nation.
Congress would need to amend the act or pass new legislation to extend that additional assistance.
The CARES Act also appropriated dollars as part of a Federal Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program that can, with addition of state extended benefits, be used to help compensate both traditionally employed Oklahomans after their benefits are exhausted and self-employed and gig workers.
Benefits under the PEUC or state extended benefits could continue to be paid to each qualifying claimant for a period of up to 13 additional weeks after benefits expire, through the end of 2020.
Anyone with a pending claim that is resolved after July 25 will be entitled to receive the benefits they would have qualified for prior to that date, backdated to when they filed their initial claim.
Horn offers help
U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn, D-Oklahoma City, continues to offer Oklahoma assistance in dealing with its unemployment insurance difficulties, a spokesman for her office said Thursday.
Horn sent a letter Thursday to Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt to let him know she remains interested in helping. This week’s letter follows another she sent in late April that her office said Stitt’s office did not respond to.
“Right now, many Oklahoma families are hanging on by a thread. Tens of thousands of Oklahomans who lost their jobs due to COVID-19 are in crisis and have still not received the unemployment assistance they are entitled to under the CARES Act,” Horn’s Thursday letter stated.
In the letter, Horn asked Stitt to provide her with an outline of what resources and other federal guidance Oklahoma might need to help address that issue, noting the CARES Act included $11 million for Oklahoma to hire additional staff to help it meet the spike in assistance requests.
“Forcing unemployed Oklahomans to line up before sunrise, directing them to jammed phone lines and turning them away are not acceptable solutions, nor do they uphold the Oklahoma Standard,” her letter continued. “We must provide unemployed Oklahomans relief now.”