As unemployment continues record rise, state works to fix claim system unprepared for surge

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Weekly initial unemployment claims have skyrocketed since mid-March, following terminations, layoffs, furloughs and business closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. CLIFTON ADCOCK/The Frontier

As newly-released numbers show unemployment claims in Oklahoma continued to climb to record levels for the third straight week because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the state agency responsible for processing those claims says it has been scrambling to stabilize and retrofit an unemployment claims system that was unprepared for the current crisis.

The numbers released by the U.S. Department of Labor on Thursday show a 7 percent increase in new unemployment claims last week, hitting a record 51,124.

In the past four weeks, more than 120,000 new unemployment claims have been filed with the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, according to the data. And though the rate of growth in the latest data is significantly lower than the previous two weeks, state employment officials warned that it is too early to say whether claims are close to hitting a peak.

“This is so unprecedented I wouldn’t feel safe in saying we’re about to peak or stabilize,” said Lynn Gray, economic research and analysis director for OESC. “I really don’t know. The numbers are so stunning, there’s nothing to compare it with historically. I just wouldn’t feel safe to characterize it as this is as high as it’s going to go.”

Oklahoma’s dramatic rise in unemployment claims — brought on by the measures of closing businesses and avoiding public gatherings to combat the spread of COVID-19 and a downturn in the oil market — parallels that of the nation. Nationally, the seasonally adjusted initial unemployment claims totaled 6.6 million for the week ending April 4, down from the previous week’s record-setting 6.8 million claims, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

As of Thursday afternoon, there were 1,684 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Oklahoma, and a total of 80 confirmed deaths caused by the disease, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health. Nationally, there were 427,460 confirmed cases and 14,696 confirmed deaths as of Thursday, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

The skyrocketing number of unemployment claims caused Oklahoma’s pre-pandemic unemployment claims system to crumble under the weight, OESC executive director Robin Roberson told state legislators during a conference call on Thursday.

Many of the legislators on Thursday’s call reported hearing from constituents who were unable to file claims, spent long hours waiting for an OESC representative or were stymied by other issues that made the process frustrating and difficult.

“I think there’s just a lot of frustration I know from my constituents, and I’ve heard from other members of the Legislature, that are just getting beyond the point of frustration,” said Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond. “We’ve got to figure something out to mitigate this problem.”

The OESC’s online claims site, which is more than three decades old, was overloaded and crashed multiple times during the last few weeks and those who called in to make a claim or check on their claim faced wait times of up to eight hours as the 15 employees who manned the OESC’s call center during the first few days of the crisis desperately tried to assist the 25,000 to 70,000 claimants who called in each day, Roberson said. Many people calling in just hung up because of the long waits, she said.

“We were, I think, in pretty dire straits and we still are on the technology front,” Roberson said. “We weren’t well situated for this crisis we’re in.”

The system went from handling between 1,500 to 2,000 claims per week to more than 200,000 over the past four weeks, she said.

“Our system is great at doing one thing — and that’s paying out unemployment benefits,” she said. “It’s not great at being programmed to do anything else at all. We can’t even actually put percentages and things into this system it’s so old and antiquated.”

However, the system is improving, Roberson told legislators. Extra bandwidth provided by the Office of Management and Enterprise Services has sped up the site by 10-fold, Roberson said, and 180 employees from other agencies or retired OESC employees who have been brought back are now manning the phones. Roberson said she hopes that number is above 200 by next week, and said the website will likely be revamped completely within two weeks.

As of Thursday, caller wait times have also been reduced to an average of around 31 minutes, with the longest wait time being around 2 hours, she said. More than 100 staff members from other agencies had also been brought over to OESC to assist where they could, she said.

The system has seen “rapid progress and improvement from where it’s been,” Roberson said.

Robin Roberson, executive director of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission. Courtesy/OESC.

During Thursday’s call, Roberson said the OESC is hoping to add an application system to its claims website for workers who do not qualify for traditional unemployment benefits, such as the self-employed or independent contractors, but who lost their employment because of the pandemic by next week.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 27 expanded unemployment benefits in three major ways:

  •     The Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation provision provides an extra $600 each week to those who qualify for unemployment benefits from March 29 to July 31.
  •     The Pandemic Unemployment Emergency Compensation provision allows for an additional 13 weeks of benefits on top of the current 26 weeks through Dec. 31, 2020.
  •     The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program expands eligibility for unemployment benefits to those who traditionally would not be eligible, such as the self-employed, independent contractors, gig-workers and those who do not have enough work history to qualify for unemployment. Those workers must have become unemployed, partially unemployed or be unable to work because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Oklahoma began processing the extra $600-per-week for workers earlier this week, Roberson said, and has already processed more than 44,000 payments.

Meanwhile, a team of programmers has been working to get a system in place for those who qualify for assistance under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program to apply. That application system will likely be tested over the weekend and go live sometime next week, though it will not be easy, Roberson said.

The antiquated system, coupled with guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor for how to administer the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program being sent to states relatively recently — April 5 — have made getting things up and running quickly for the program difficult, Roberson said.

“That is our No. 1 priority right now,” she said. “You have to understand how complicated it is to bring in using the guidance we have on a system that has never done anything like this. There’s a lot of programmers working on this. All of the states are in this situation by the way, it’s not just us. It’s been a firestorm but we’re working very, very hard to make this happen.”

The Oklahoma Employment Security Commission is scheduled to hold a statewide virtual townhall meeting to answer questions from the public at 1 p.m. Friday.

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Clifton Adcock

Senior Staff Writer

A veteran investigative reporter who has covered eastern Oklahoma for more than 15 years, Clifton joined The Frontier in April 2017. A native of southeastern Oklahoma, he has covered numerous issues from criminal justice to politics for publications including the Tulsa World, the Oklahoma Gazette, and Oklahoma Watch. Clifton holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma. Clifton can be reached at clifton@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @cliftonhowze
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