It has been a year since COVID-19 forced tens of thousands of Oklahomans on to unemployment. That avalanche of claims overwhelmed the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission as the state’s unemployment rate rose to 13%.
A year later, the rate is down to 4.2% after OESC triaged a 100,000-claim backlog and set in motion long term system upgrades.
“We've learned a lot of lessons over the past year,” OESC Executive Director Shelley Zumwalt said.
After taking over the agency in May of 2020, Zumwalt streamlined a complicated two-tier system that promised claimants a call back to handle more cumbersome issues. She said at the pace calls were being returned, Oklahomans would have been waiting nearly two years for their issue to be resolved.
The agency was also inundated with fraudulent claims.
“Fraud before the pandemic happened was someone filing for benefits when they didn’t qualify, this was completely not on unemployment’s radar; identity theft was something that if it had happened it was one or two not 1,000 or 2000,” Zumwalt said.
This week, the state will have paid out more than $5 billion in unemployment since the pandemic began. For comparison, Oklahoma had only paid out $3 billion in claims the entire decade before.
“Has it gotten better? Yes. But there’s still a lot of issues that need to be fixed,” Rep. Mickie Dollens, D-OKC, said.
Last May Dollens criticized the agency, telling constituents in a Facebook post, “… they are FAILING Oklahomans. This is their duty, and they are failing you.”
“We need to reevaluate these third-party vendors that we currently have contracts with, and we have to update the technology going forward,” Dollens said. “God forbid anything like this would ever happen again, that we wouldn’t be in such a major setback that we were a year ago.”
Zumwalt said major upgrades to take OESC’s unemployment claimant portal should be complete by the end of 2021. The agency’s 40-year-old main frame system will also be retired next year.
A year ago, OESC was hosting mass unemployment events helping people file claims. Today, they are holding job fairs trying to get Oklahomans back to work.
“Many people I met, it may be their worst day; they’re unemployed and need help assistance. Then to be there on a really happy day when they find employment and they get to start this next chapter is really gratifying,” Zumwalt said.
Across the country, three Republican governors have announced they will terminate federal jobless benefits next month in an effort to reduce the unemployment rate. News 9 is told Gov. Kevin Stitt is evaluating all options to get Oklahomans back to work, however, there is not yet a timeline as to when benefits will be cut off in Oklahoma.