Valerie Killman, a 50-year old mother of three, signed up for unemployment benefits in March after losing her teaching job at an Oklahoma virtual charter school.
Killman’s 16-year-old daughter has been battling bone cancer for years, and has extensive scarring on her lungs from cancer treatments.
She’s been looking for a job that would allow her to work from home and not risk infecting her daughter with COVID-19.
“We didn’t work so hard on fighting cancer to have something like COVID take her out,” she said.
Killman also suffers from an autoimmune disorder.
Thanks to enhanced benefits Congress approved to help job seekers during the coronavirus pandemic, Killman was entitled to an extra $300 a week in unemployment payments. Congress also extended the amount of time workers could draw jobless benefits through Sept. 6.
But Gov. Kevin Stitt announced in May that Oklahoma would cut off these additional, federally funded benefits on June 26 in hopes of pushing more people back to work sooner.
In place of the extra payments, Stitt ordered the “Oklahoma Back-to-Work Initiative” to provide a one-time $1,200-check to up to 20,000 people hired by qualified employers by Sept. 4 after leaving the unemployment insurance program.
But the governor’s decision to end the expanded benefits more than two months early has not helped Killman find a job and has only made things tougher for her family and thousands of other Oklahomans, she said.
“I am trying to make it through, but it has impacted our ability to get medicine, groceries, pay rent,” she said. “That extra $300 helped. And right now, I’m feeling the strain. What is going to be really terrible is to see what happens on Sept. 6 when it ends nationwide, if they don’t give an extension. We’ll see people going through the exact problems we are in our state.”
Killman believed she would have until Labor Day to find a new job, but Oklahoma’s early end to additional unemployment benefits has left her scrambling.
“I’m not above getting a job as a waitress, I’m certainly not,” Killman said. “But that doesn’t help my situation, and I would really like to do something working with kids and teaching. That’s really my passion.”
When Killman saw a television news segment about people in training programs who had their unemployment payments cut, she said she decided to join a lawsuit against the state of Oklahoma to reinstate those benefits.
Killman is one of nearly two dozen plaintiffs in two separate lawsuits that seek to restore the expanded and extended benefits in Oklahoma. The petitioners in one lawsuit say more than 35,000 Oklahomans have been affected by Stitt’s decision to end the benefits early.
Similar lawsuits challenging the early end to pandemic unemployment programs have also been filed in Indiana, Maryland, Ohio, Texas, Tennessee, Florida and Arkansas. Oklahoma now joints two other states — Indiana and Maryland — where lawsuits have resulted in the temporary reinstatement of extra benefits.
The first Oklahoma lawsuit was filed against Oklahoma Employment Security Commission director Shelley Zumwalt at the beginning of June in Tulsa County District Court and later transferred to Oklahoma County. A separate lawsuit was later filed against the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission and Stitt at the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
On Aug. 6, Oklahoma County District Court Judge Anthony Bonner, who heard arguments in the first lawsuit, ordered the state to at least temporarily resume the expanded and enhanced unemployment benefits to Oklahomans.
The following Monday, attorneys for the state from the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court to consolidate both cases and overturn the lower court’s order.
An Oklahoma Supreme Court referee heard arguments in both lawsuits last week. The referee said he would quickly complete reports to send to the court justices, but could not give a definite timeline for when the court would make a decision about how to move forward. The court could make a decision based on the referee’s report alone or decide to hear further arguments in the case before making a decision.
In court filings, the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission has stated that it has already begun the process of reinstating the expanded unemployment benefits, but did not specify when it plans to resume payments. The increased unemployment funds expire at the federal level on Sept. 6, and some in online unemployment support communities have expressed worry that the state is trying to run out the clock.
The issue has been a contentious one. On Thursday, KWTV in Oklahoma City reported that Zumwalt and Employment Security Commission staff had received threats over the issue. The agency has reported the threats to the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.
In a statement to The Frontier, Zumwalt said the Employment Security Commission has been in constant communication with the U.S. Department of Labor to begin the process of reinstating federal unemployment benefits in accordance with the court order.
However, it is unlikely that Oklahoma would resume payments before the state Supreme Court ruled in the case, she said. Even after a decision, it would likely take weeks to re-start the payments.
“Once a final ruling has been made, and if the Oklahoma Supreme Court upholds the lower court’s decision, we are in a good position to reinstate benefits, which will take weeks as the agency needs further guidance from the U.S. DOL and to work through outdated technology at OESC,” Zumwalt said.
The U.S. Department of Labor did not respond to The Frontier’s questions about how long it would take to restore the benefits.
Stitt decided to end the programs early because Oklahoma employers have struggled to find workers over the past year, he said in a statement in May announcing the early end to the expanded benefits in the state.
“For Oklahoma to become a Top Ten state, workforce participation must be at a top level and I am committed to doing what I can to help Oklahomans get off the sidelines and into the workforce,” Stitt said.
Politically, Killman said she is conservative with libertarian leanings. She bristled at the suggestion that she and others on unemployment have caused a labor shortage or are unwilling to work.
“I did not really appreciate the insinuation that he (Stitt) was giving to people that he was going to end the federal benefits because we were lazy, and we’d rather sit at home on our butts than go back to work because we were making more on unemployment,” Killman said. “None of these people are slackers. They’re people genuinely caught in the middle who never intended to be.”
State business groups and state government officials have also chaffed against the availability of increased unemployment benefits since the programs went into effect last year, saying extra payments provided a “disincentive” for people to seek employment. In April last year, members of the Governor’s Council on Workforce and Economic Development mulled asking the federal government to stop increased benefits to Oklahomans.
Since then, Oklahoma’s unemployment rate has steadily declined.
“I think for a lot of Oklahomans, it was frustrating to be told we’re the reason why you see help wanted signs everywhere,” Killman said. “There are other reasons contributing to that.”