New unemployment claims filed last week hit their highest level yet, surpassing previous weeks’ record levels brought on by the novel coronavirus. CLIFTON ADCOCK/The Frontier

As new unemployment figures show new claims in Oklahoma climbed to their highest level yet last week, close to half of Oklahoma workers who have filed for unemployment have yet to receive assistance, according to state officials.

And while state officials say getting the promised unemployment funds to workers is a top priority, many of those who have yet to be helped have become skeptical of official explanations for the delays in the nearly two months since businesses in the state began to close because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Numbers released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Labor show that 68,237 new unemployment claims were filed the week ending May 2, is a 30 percent increase in new filings from the previous week and shattered the previous record of new weekly unemployment claims that was set the week ending April 4, which saw 60,534 claims filed.

Part of the reason for the jump in new claims last week was the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission opening up its site for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance funds, said Secretary for Digital Transformation David Ostrowe. Those funds, made available through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which provides unemployment benefits for those who would not qualify for traditional unemployment, such as independent contractors and people with insufficient work history.

“The jump in initial unemployment claims show the impact the energy crisis and coronavirus are having on our state’s economy and the need for Oklahomans to safely return to their livelihoods,” Ostrowe said. “The record claims numbers include individuals who don’t qualify for regular unemployment benefits but don’t completely account for the spike that occurred last week.”

Nationally, initial claims totaled a little less than 3.2 million, a decrease of 677,000 from the previous week’s numbers.

Nationally, the unemployment rate for April was calculated at 14.7 percent, the highest level since the Great Depression, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

On Wednesday, Oklahoma Secretary of Commerce and Workforce Development Sean Kouplen said during a conference call with businesses that Oklahoma’s estimated unemployment rate is 18 percent. Just prior to the pandemic, the unemployment rate was around 3.1 percent.

“That number just blows my mind,” Kouplen said.

However, almost two months after Oklahoma began seeing huge spikes in its new unemployment claims because of measures put in place by the state and local governments and businesses to stop the spread of COVID-19, thousands of Oklahomans still have yet to receive any of the unemployment aid promised to them, despite the best efforts of the state.

“We know that we are having huge problems getting people through our unemployment system. We are putting huge resources toward that,” Kouplen said on Wednesday. “We know we’re just now reaching a little over half the people who need it. It is heartbreaking. I know people need the money. We are adding every possible resource and expert to the table to try and get it fixed.”

A system unprepared

When new unemployment claims began pouring in to OESC beginning in mid-March, the state’s unemployment system broke down. Few claims were being processed, the OESC online filling system was highly unstable and would more often than not crash for those trying to file claims. Wait times to speak with an OESC representative on a claim stretched more than 8 hours for some.

It soon became obvious that the state’s unemployment filing system was incapable of handling the load.

OESC Executive Director Robin Roberson, who has only been in that position since February and was recovering from a double mastectomy following a cancer diagnosis, returned to her post only eight days after her surgery. Hundreds of state employees from other agencies were called in to OESC to assist with calls, web chat and tech support.

Steve Harpe, director of the state Office of Management and Enterprise Services, was tapped to help lead the effort to stabilize and improve OESC’s unemployment application website, along with Chief Information Officer Jerry Moore and Ostrowe.

“It was pretty evident to Director Roberson that she needed some help,” Harpe told The Frontier. “This isn’t one of those things where you can just try and do the best you can. This is one of those things we have to win and we have to win now so people can get their benefits and we realize that.”

The OESC system, initially designed to handle between 1,500 and 2,500 claims per-week, was being bombarded by thousands of claims per day, Ostrow said during a press conference with Gov. Kevin Stitt earlier this week.

“To go to these levels is just astronomical,” Ostrowe said.

Stitt said on Wednesday the state is working hard to get benefits to those who have applied, and urged people to be patient with the process.

“Getting unemployment claims processed and paid is a top priority in my administration,” Stitt said. “I know this is incredibly frustrating for many of you. We are continuing to make progress, but like you I wish it was quicker.”

Things have improved somewhat at OESC since the early weeks of the pandemic — call wait times have been brought down to less than a minute, the online application systems have more stability, the extra $600 per-week in federal unemployment assistance has been added to many applicants’ funds and a new application system for those qualifying for PUA has been introduced.

And yet, thousands of Oklahomans who were furloughed or laid off because of the pandemic have yet to receive unemployment funds, even as the state is within a week of beginning the second phase of rolling back its COVID restrictions.

Workers who have applied but have yet to receive assistance as well as state officials say reasons for the delays vary — troubles with the OESC’s website, errors on applications, a delay in “Tier 2” technical assistance call-backs to applicants from OESC and long delays on receiving unemployment benefits debit cards from the card manufacturers.

On Wednesday, Kouplen estimated about half of those who have applied have yet to receive assistance and that the system was still experiencing major issues nearly two months after the influx of unemployment claims began.

“We know that we are having huge problems getting people through our unemployment system. We are putting huge resources toward that,” Kouplen said. “We know we’re just now reaching a little over half the people who need it. It is heartbreaking. I know people need the money. We are adding every possible resource and expert to the table to try and get it fixed.”

Though Oklahoma was one of the first states to begin distributing funds for workers who qualified for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance last week, about 8,000 PUA applications are still incomplete, Ostrowe said. In addition, getting the funds out the door proved difficult because the rules from the U.S. Department of Labor on PUA kept changing, Kouplen said.

“It’s frustrating for people because the rules keep changing. It’s a lot like the (Payroll Protection Program for businesses) was,” Kouplen said, “where we think we know what we’re doing, and then we get a whole new set of directions out of Washington D.C.”

Unemployed in Oklahoma

Owasso massage therapist Christina Licona said she has been going online, making phone calls, and filling out paperwork — often receiving confusing and contradictory information — in an effort to get her Pandemic Unemployment Assistance funds.

It has been two months since she began her efforts. Her husband, who is a gig worker and also applied for PUA was told four weeks ago to wait on a call from one of OESC’s “Tier 2” representatives that, thus far, has not yet come.

“I’m very frustrated because I’m beginning to feel that I am being tricked,” Licona said. “It has been almost two months with no payment.”

Since the pandemic began, Licona and thousands of other out-of-work Oklahomans have taken to the Unemployed in Oklahoma Facebook page.

Many of the posts there are by people asking questions about the process or who have encountered errors. Those who have already been through the process help by providing others with tips and work-arounds for navigating the system, phone numbers to call, websites to visit, and sometimes gallows humor and emotional support as their frustration mounts.

“This has me almost wanting to give up on life,” one group member wrote. “Over a month now without any income, my bills are piling up and my mental health is rapidly declining. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to hold on.”

Many of the group members have grown skeptical of the assurances of state officials who say they are trying to improve the system.

Monica Marsh, a small business owner from Norman who shut down her business in March after the city ordered the closure of nonessential businesses, said she was told she would qualify for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, and began the application process in late March. After weeks of waiting, she tried to apply for PUA once it became available in late April. But problems with the website have kept her from being able to submit her claim information, she said.

I email them to inform them of the issue, but the last time I emailed them with a problem, it took them about three weeks to reply and offered zero help,” Marsh said. “I tried to get back onto filing my weekly this past Sunday, and now the link is completely grayed-out to where it can’t be clicked on to complete the process.”

Marsh and others say they now want to organize a protest consisting of unemployed workers at the Capitol building in the next few weeks, though no firm date has been set as of Friday.

“This is why we want to protest,” Marsh said. “Not having income for almost two months is causing a lot of us to lose our businesses, homes, etc. We cannot survive without income for this long. Lots of us are now behind on bills and we are hearing that our state wants to do away with PUA even though we haven’t received a single penny from it.”

Marsh said she hopes the protest spurs the state to quickly get the money it promised to the people who need it.

What we would like to see happen is for OESC to stop dragging their feet and start disbursing payments like now,” Marsh said. “It’s absurd that we are facing two months of no pay because they don’t have it together. I understand that they are dealing with a record number of claims but come on, this looks like complete mismanagement. We are people struggling to get by.”

OMES director Harpe said he has family members who have also been trying to get unemployment benefits, and despite the strides in the past few weeks, there is still more work to be done to get people their funds.

“Every day we’re getting much, much better and much, much faster,” Harpe said. “We’re not beating the drum and saying ‘look how great this is now’ because I understand there’s a lot of people still struggling through the process. What we’re trying to get out is, we want people to know we’re working day and nights and weekends. This isn’t like people coming in, pulling 40 hours and going home. We’re all in this trying to get these services to people to bring them the benefit as quickly as possible and no one is resting until that happens.”