Presidential assistance offered for unemployed, Oklahoma officials evaluating options
While the number of Oklahomans receiving continued unemployment assistance during the final week of July lowered slightly, numbers remain stubbornly high.
Meanwhile, the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission (OESC), the agency overwhelmed by the unemployment claims surge earlier this year, is considering new options as the landscape involving offered benefits changes yet again.
A breakdown in talks between the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senate and the White House to send most adult Americans additional stimulus checks and to extend a popular unemployment benefit that gave out-of-work people an additional $600 a week prompted President Donald Trump to sign executive orders the administration states will provide at least some limited help, for now.
For working Americans, the help may come in the form of a payroll tax deferral plan, rather than in the form of another round of stimulus checks.
As for unemployed Americans receiving compensation through their state and territorial programs, Trump issued an order that accesses $44 billion in disaster fund dollars that could be used to provide claimants with up to an additional $400 a week (with $300 coming from the federal government and $100 from states) in unemployment compensation.
The biggest bump anyone likely would see in a weekly check would be $300, however, given that the order allows states to provide their required match using dollars already included in an individual’s weekly payment from his or her state’s unemployment insurance account.
And a person with a weekly unemployment benefit of less than $100 wouldn’t qualify to receive the additional help, a technicality analysts have said would leave many low-wage earners out in the cold.
Some states might choose not to participate at all. Oklahoma, if it participates, would have to design yet another feature within its claims processing software system to handle the payments of those additional funds.
"OESC is working with state and national leadership to assess our state’s options regarding the recently announced U.S. Department of Labor’s Lost Wages Assistance (LWA) program and guidance," Shelley Zumwalt, the agency's interim director, said Thursday. "We do not have details to share yet, but will provide updates as available."
OESC’s efforts to assist Oklahoma’s unemployed has been complicated from the pandemic’s start by an outdated computer system used to process claims that Oklahoma’s Office of Management Enterprises has been constantly updating to make it easier for people to obtain assistance.
Specialists had to build in programming needed to provide unemployment compensation to self-employed and gig-economy workers and to provide both them and traditional workers with the extra $600 weekly Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation.
If Oklahoma does participate in the Lost Wages Assistance program, that additional help would end with the compensation week that closes on Dec. 5. It could end earlier if the $44 billion disaster relief fund held by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is exhausted first.
A CARES Act authorized extended benefits program for traditional workers who are unemployed that provides them with an additional 13 weeks of benefits continues. Self-employed/gig-economy workers without jobs who are getting assistance through the CARES Act’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program are also covered through the end of the year by that program.
As for people who have pending unemployment claims involving weeks that ended on July 25 or earlier, state officials said this week they would still receive the additional $600 Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation weekly benefit if those claims are ultimately paid.
"It remains quite stunning that Congress has yet to agree on a fresh round of relief legislation with so many Americans hurting financially,” said Mark Hamrick, Bankrate.com's senior economic analyst. “Even after the president’s controversial and narrowly focused executive orders, the nation’s governors and business interests alike have urged all sides to redouble their efforts to pass meaningful and much needed legislation. That focus should not ease because of slight improvement in still extremely elevated new jobless claims."
Improved, but still high
As for Oklahoma’s current unemployment claims situation, data released Thursday showed the initial unemployment insurance claims submitted by state residents to the OESC during the week ending Aug. 8 dropped below 5,000.
Data showed 4,673 claims were filed, 1,936 fewer than the week before.
Meanwhile, 118,131 unemployed Oklahomans were getting help through continuing payments for the week ending Aug. 1.
The U.S. Department of Labor estimates the nation’s unemployment rate fell to 10.6% in the final week of July, with 15,486,000 unemployed traditional workers getting continuing assistance from compensation programs in their states and territories.
The previous week, more than 16 million were getting that help.
The Labor Department stated the four-week moving average for continued assistance claims was 16,169,500, a decrease of 454,500 from the previous week. That number peaked the first week of May, when 25 million Americans were drawing assistance.
In Oklahoma, the number of continued assistance claims peaked in mid-June at about 180,000.
For the week that ended July 25, the total number of people getting help across the nation through all programs including the CARES Act’s pandemic unemployment assistance fund for gig-economy and self-employed people was 28,257,995, about 3 million less than those who were getting assistance the week before.
Robert Dauffenbach, director of the Center for Economic and Management Research at the University of Oklahoma's Price College of Business, said markets enthusiastically embraced Thursday’s numbers, despite concerns that numbers are still remarkably elevated.
Dauffenbach said that Oklahoma’s initial claims number for the week ending Aug. 8 is on par with average levels it saw during the Great Financial Crisis.
While its number of continuing claims were 2.8 times higher than the 2009 average, he observed that tracks with what is being seen across the country.
“Trends have improved markedly in relation to the severest levels recorded during the pandemic,” he said on Thursday. “However, continuing claims are still high in comparison to 2009. Until there is a vaccine and people are less fearful of social activity, the likelihood is that continuing claims will remain relatively high.”