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Delay possible in federal jobless aid

Oklahomans eligible for federal unemployment benefits may experience a delay next week as the state waits on guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor to incorporate the latest extension, the head of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission said Wednesday.

“The testing that we have to do to make sure the benefits are distributed correctly and to the right people is exhaustive,” said Shelley Zumwalt, executive director of the agency. “That’s why we can’t get it done right away.”

The agency has already begun working on the updates using some assumptions about the extension, but Zumwalt said she was hesitant to provide an estimate of how long it would take to incorporate the Labor Department changes.

The House gave final approval on Wednesday to the $1.9 trillion spending package that extends the $300-per-week federal benefit through Sept. 6. President Joe Biden is planning to sign the bill on Friday. All five U.S. House members from Oklahoma voted against the bill, as did both the state’s senators.

The federal unemployment benefit is set to expire on Sunday, and the OESC must wait for explicit instructions from the Labor Department before incorporating the new rules.

The extension of benefits will apply to those receiving state benefits and those receiving benefits from programs like Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for gig workers and other self-employed people.

Zumwalt, who took over the agency when it was in the midst of meltdown last year because of pandemic-related job losses, said Wednesday that improvements have been made to the agency’s 40-year-old computer system but that reprogramming is still time-consuming.

The OESC paid out $4.4 billion from March 2020 to February 2021, which was more than it paid out in the previous 10 years combined, the agency said.

For the week ending Feb. 27, new claims for benefits in Oklahoma topped 5,800, while continuing claims hovered near 30,000.

Oklahoma’s unemployment rate dropped to 4.5% in December, down from the 13% peak of April 2020, but still above the pre-pandemic rate of 3.1% in February 2020.

Zumwalt said initial claims for assistance have continued to decline and more Oklahomans are finding work than getting laid off.

“You could probably track back just about anyone who’s losing their job right now to COVID just because of the unstable atmosphere created for so many businesses,” she said. “But is there the mass layoffs or an outbreak that closes down a pork plant in Guymon? No.”

In addition to extending federal unemployment benefits, the package approved Wednesday shields some 2020 unemployment benefits from federal income taxation.

Under the bill, an individual would not owe federal income taxes on the first $10,200 received last year in unemployment benefits; the amount exempt would be double for a couple.

Some Republicans have complained that the federal benefit added to state benefits can, for some people, make unemployment a better financial option than working.

Zumwalt said, “I don’t have any hard evidence that it is discouraging people (from looking for work). But I know that there is a decent percentage of people that are receiving more in benefits from March to March than they would have if they were employed in the job” for which they filed for benefits.

The OESC has reinstated the requirement that people collecting benefits seek employment, though there are exceptions.

Zumwalt said the OESC is planning a job fair in May.

“We do everything on our end to connect employees and employers,” she said. “We’re super active in that space.”