People seeking assistance with unemployment claims wait in line at the Reed Center in Midwest City on Wednesday. Courtesy Oklahoma Employment Security Commission.

The number of weekly first-time unemployment claims filed in Oklahoma fell last week to its lowest level since early March, prior to the state seeing record spikes in unemployment claims brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, according to preliminary data released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Thursday’s preliminary unemployment data shows an estimated 16,680 new unemployment claims were filed with the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission for the week ending June 27, down from the previous week’s number of 58,613 new claims.

Though that number is significantly higher than new claims from last year, it is lower than the number of new claims that came in to OESC during the first week businesses began closing to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus, the week ending March 21. During that week, the state saw 21,926 new cases filed. The week prior to that, only 1,836 cases had been filed.

Continued unemployment claims, which shows the total number of people who are receiving unemployment benefits in a given week, remained high for the week ending June 27, with 157,740 total claimants, the preliminary data shows. That is down from the previous week’s claims, which hit an all-time high of 182,191, according to the data.

The state’s overall unemployment rate, which was around 3.2 percent in February, peaked at 14.7 percent in April, and decreased to 12.6 percent in May, according to OESC’s preliminary numbers

The data also shows 1,826 Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims were filed with OESC for the week ending June 27, up 380 claims from the previous week.

Though the numbers are showing an early downward trend, hundreds of Oklahomans are still struggling to receive unemployment benefits, as long lines of people hoping to resolve claims issues have been camping out at OESC’s headquarters. The OESC this week began hosting claims events, hoping to help greater numbers of people who need assistance, at Midwest City’s Reed Center. It has additional events scheduled at the Reed Center next week, and officials said they hope to host events in Tulsa the following week.

“Even with the significant decrease in initial claims, our team has been hard at work processing claims in person in Midwest City this week,” said OESC Interim Executive Director Shelley Zumwalt. “Our July 1 event met our anticipated goal of serving 500 people. We know there’s still a significant need, so we are adding events to ensure more Oklahomans are served in central Oklahoma, along with our upcoming Tulsa events slated for mid-July.

“We are continuing to adjust our processes at our events and pivot throughout each day to ensure claims are being processed quickly and safely.”

The numbers released Thursday are preliminary, and often undergo revision the following week. However, the steep drop in new cases is a reason for cautious optimism about the state’s employment situation, said Charlie Hannema, spokesman for Gov. Kevin Stitt.

“Unemployment rates follow a lagged pattern when compared to initial unemployment claims,” Hannema said. “It is encouraging to see the sharp decline in initial claims, and as a result, we expect to see our unemployment rate continue to go down as more businesses recover and get more Oklahomans back to work safely.”

However, the unemployment numbers come at a time when several Oklahoma mayors, faced with increasingly high numbers of COVID-19 cases in their cities, have started to re-implement some restrictions on businesses and social gatherings, aimed at stopping the spread of the disease.

The state began its phased approach to lifting restrictions on social gatherings and businesses on April 24, and by June 1, had shifted to fully-open status by lifting the remaining restrictions. Shortly after lifting those restrictions, though, the number of COVID-19 cases began increasing dramatically and hospitalizations also since been trending upward.

Last week, Gov. Stitt said reimplementing restrictions to close businesses again were “not part of the discussion.” This week, the governor encouraged, but did not mandate, the use of masks to prevent the spread of the disease.

“From the outset of the pandemic, the governor’s priorities have been to first protect the health and lives of Oklahomans and then mitigate the impacts to our economy and get Oklahomans back to work safely,” Hannema said. “As we continue to work toward the long-term response to COVID-19, it is clear these two priorities are connected. Even if this virus may not pose as significant of a risk to younger and healthier Oklahomans, we need everyone to do their part to slow the spread so we can continue to have businesses operating safely and Oklahomans earning paychecks to support their families.”

Hannema urged Oklahomans to take voluntary social distancing and protective measures to reduce the spread of the disease and that having to shut down again in response to hospitalizations overwhelming the system would be “devastating.”

“Being forced to return to widespread business closures in order to protect our hospital capacity would have a devastating effect on our economic recovery,” Hannema said. “Oklahomans can come together to slow the spread and prevent that from happening.”

In addition to the pandemic response, the crash of oil and natural gas prices around the same time also had a large impact on the state’s economy, Hannema said. Numerous oil and natural gas companies have either filed for bankruptcy or laid off workers since oil prices collapsed, though prices have since recovered somewhat.

Though the Oklahoma Department of Commerce is keeping an eye on performance indicators of the state’s economy — unemployment claims, unemployment rates, employment growth, labor force participation, tax collections and others — it is difficult to say when the state will be fully recovered, Hannema said.

“Since this pandemic has been unlike anything in our lifetime, it is hard to have an accurate roadmap of what the recovery will look like,” Hannema said. “We do know that the economic impact to Oklahoma will be more severe than to other states due to the decline in the oil and gas sector on top of the effects from COVID-19.”

Hannema said the state is also trying to help businesses impacted by the pandemic by offering assistance through a number of programs at the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, including the Oklahoma Manufacturing Reboot Program, the Oklahoma Bounce Back Assistance Program and the Oklahoma Business Relief Program.

“The Stitt Administration is assisting businesses in ways that were not perceived in the past,” Hannema said, “and the governor hopes this assistance will encourage more businesses to expand their hiring and retain existing employees.”