Unemployment agency head resigns, commission votes to move agency IT and ‘business practices’ under OMES

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Oklahoma Employment Security Commission Executive Director Robin Roberson speaks during a press conference in Oklahoma City, Okla. on Tuesday, April 7, 2020 where the State of Oklahoma has amassed it stockpile of personal protection equipment and medical supplies for the State’s COVID-19 response. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman]

The head of the state agency responsible for processing unemployment claims resigned abruptly Friday, following a meeting in which the agency’s information technology and business services were consolidated under another state agency.

Robin Roberson, who has only headed the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission since Feb. 3 and was also undergoing treatment for cancer when the pandemic hit, submitted her resignation shortly after the commission met Friday morning and voted to consolidate its IT division and business services under the Office of Management and Enterprise Services.

After the meeting, held via video conference, was called to order, the commission immediately voted to go into executive session to “discuss information technology security issues and strategies and to discuss the current problems with fraudulent unemployment insurance claims and high level OESC personnel review.”

Following the executive session, which lasted around an hour and a half, the commission resumed its meeting, but did not vote on or discuss Roberson’s employment, but rather voted to consolidate its information technology operations and the agency’s “business practices” under the Office of Management and Enterprise Services. Shortly after the meeting ended, the Oklahoman reported Roberson had resigned.

Asked what consolidating OESC’s “business practices” under OMES would mean, Roberson said that it was open to interpretation.

“That was shared yesterday and there’s no documentation other than that entailing really what that means,” Roberson said. “That was my concern — to agree on something that would really be an agency change.”

In a statement to The Frontier, Secretary of Digital Transformation David Ostrowe, who attended Friday’s commission meeting, said of the “business practices” item approved by the commission: “The details that are currently available are included in the meeting’s agenda. Details on the effects of the board’s actions will be available at a later date and will be shared with the media and public.”

Roberson said she had been asked to take time off prior to Friday’s commission meeting, but decided to resign after the commission came out of executive session with plans to call another special meeting next week to discus her replacement.

“I just felt it would be less of a distraction and they would be able to move more quickly and go ahead and get the person they want in there now so not to waste any additional time,” Roberson said. “So I felt it was better for me to go ahead and leave today rather than going through all that next week.”

Asked directly whether she was forced out, Roberson declined to comment.

Rep. Mickey Dollens, D-Oklahoma City, who has been critical of the state’s response to the problems the unemployment filing system, said he believes Roberson was forced out.

“She wasn’t given a fair shot at only 16 weeks on the job,” Dollens said. “Unfortunately, she was the scapegoat for an agency and system that’s been underfunded for decades. I have a lot of respect for Ms. Roberson and always appreciated her quick replies and readiness to help.”

Roberson said some commissioners had expressed concern about the levels of fraudulent unemployment claims being filed (which officials have said is mostly the result of the one-week waiting period in claims filing being waived by the state and federal governments), the backlog of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims, and the delay in finalizing the platform for PUA claims.

“Everyone’s frustrated in the state and I’m sure they believe they can get someone in there to make those things move,” Roberson said. “I totally respect their decision.”

It was not immediately clear on Friday who would be heading the agency in the wake of Roberson’s resignation, but following her resignation, Gov. Kevin Stitt issued a statement thanking her for her service and expressing confidence that OESC would choose the right leader moving forward.

Oklahomans have the expectation that state services will be available when they need them the most, and I know there are still many Oklahomans waiting for unemployment benefits,” Stitt said. “I have confidence that the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission will identify the right leader to quickly get to the bottom of the issues exposed by this pandemic, to continue to modernize its antiquated systems as we move forward, and to deliver the services Oklahomans deserve.”

Since the state began implementing measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 in mid-March, the OESC had numerous problems with its unemployment claims system as the antiquated system became overloaded and the help line was inundated with phone calls, resulting in hold times sometimes stretching up to 8 hours.

OESC brought on board OMES, Ostrowe and Chief Information Officer Jerry Moore to help improve they system and process claims, as well as build a system for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims. Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, was part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that allowed the self-employed, gig workers, and others who would not qualify for traditional unemployment to receive benefits.

However, as hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans applied for unemployment benefits, thousands of fraudulent claims were also being received by OESC, thanks in part to the relaxed filing requirements and the tsunami of legitimate claims coming in. As of Thursday, officials had identified nearly 15,000 fraudulent claims that had been filed, according to OESC.

Meanwhile, on April 24, the state launched its PUA claims site. However, it too has experienced issues, and soon a backlog of more than 60,000 PUA claims built up. As of this week, that backlog was closer to 40,000 said Trey Davis, who was serving as a spokesman for OESC.

On Tuesday, the OESC’s commissioners met in a special meeting and voted to consolidate the agency’s information technology division into OMES. However, according to commissioners, Attorney General Mike Hunter advised them to put the item back on the agenda for Friday’s special meeting, since the video conference link was not included in the agenda, possibly causing the commission to run afoul of the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act.

“The Attorney General, as we’re learning new things with the Zoom conferences and stuff, had advised us that although we had listed our Zoom connection in a separate link, out of an abundance of caution, it would be good to list it on the agenda and re-vote on that item just to dot all our i’s and cross all our t’s,” commission chairman David Reid said Friday.

That measure was passed by the commission by a vote of 4 to 1, with the lone no vote coming from Commissioner David Adams, who said it was “too ambiguous.”

The commission then took up an agenda item that would consolidate OESC’s “business practices” under OMES “including all, not previously consolidated, people, processes, and intellectual property that are associated with technology, information security, cyber security, business processes and design” including “processes and design that assist citizens in acquiring funding from OESC, providing mechanisms to dispense such funds, fraud and business relationships with vendors that provide these services currently.”

Davis told The Frontier that, once an agreement with OMES is finalized, it would put the agency’s contracting, proposal requests, payroll, purchasing, and other financial services under OMES.

While other state agencies have already contracted those services out to OMES, the Employment Security Commission had yet to voluntarily do so, he said.

“This is not unusual. This is part of the consolidation process that began several years ago when Mary Fallin was Governor,” Davis said. “It’s probably something that would have happened anyway, they’re just going ahead and making it all happen now.”

However, Roberson told The Frontier after the meeting that it is not really clear what the measure will mean for OESC and is “completely open to interpretation.”

“The agenda is about as detailed of a description that anyone’s been given. So your interpretation of that paragraph is as good as anyone else’s,” Roberson told The Frontier. “The thing that concerned me was the word ‘people’ in there. Do I feel like OMES understands exactly what’s happening on the people side and do they understand 100 percent the process side? That will be up to them to determine.”

Roberson said if OESC IT employees are consolidated under OMES, it could result in them being laid off within the next few months, citing a recent conference call by Ostrow.

“OMES is looking at outsourcing the IT support desk function in July,” Roberson said, “and so a lot of the desk support IT personnel at OESC are concerned about the transfer because they know that in July they’ll just lose their jobs, and that’s a fair valid concern.”

Dollens said the move was a “power grab” by OMES, and that he planned to ask Attorney General Mike Hunter’s office whether consolidation of those OESC services could be done without input from the Legislature.

“I see this as a way to consolidate power and try something new to be able to tell the public ‘look, we’re actually doing something,’” Dollens said, “but I think that in the end I don’t see how this is going to get any more claims any faster or solve any of the IT problems that have already existed under OMES oversight.”

Dollens said he has heard from constituents, including Employment Security Commission workers, that the PUA claims site, which was developed and implemented by OMES and a Colorado-based company called Granicus, has had numerous issues. Those issues have caused people to be locked out of having their claims processed and contributed to the backlog, such as incorrect date formatting and language and other errors that have caused confusion for filers.

“Those types of things are one of the reasons 60,000 PUA claims are held up right now, because one wrong answer and that’s it,” Dollens said.

Dollens said OESC employees have asked for additional training from OMES to help speed up the process, but to no avail, and that while the PUA claims site allows people to enter their information, there is no software in place to process the claims. Rather, he said, it is all being done manually by OESC workers. All of this contradicts state leaders’ claims that the state is working quickly to fix the system, he said.

“Now it’s starting to come together that there’s nothing working right,” Dollens said. “I think the frustration erupts when the people of Oklahoma are told one thing and are experiencing a completely different reality.”

Davis said that the PUA system was originally built by OESC on its Disaster Unemployment Assistance system, a program and platform that usually serves only a few people, and which required a technical specialist for OESC to speak with the applicant and resolve the issue. However, with the hundreds of thousands of claims coming in, and because issues with those claims have to be resolved by a person with the technical knowledge to do so, it caused a massive backlog.

“Part of the intent in doing the digital transformation is to automate that application process so it doesn’t require that human intervention in order to get the claim processed,” Davis said. “They’re not there yet. It’s not that automating the process created the (requirement for) human interaction, human interaction was already required. They’re trying to move from that to an automated process to relieve the overload and increase efficiency.”

Roberson told The Frontier that when the PUA platform was built by Granicus and OMES, it did not include an automated processing ability, the system for filing weekly PUA claims is not working and the system for filing initial PUA claims is working only intermittently.

“Unfortunately, they built it where it did require a manual touch instead of building it where it would process it electronically,” she said. “I’m not sure why that step was missed. It should have been built to where it was electronic.”

OESC personnel were also not provided adequate training by Granicus to use the system, Roberson said, and all of those issues have contributed to the backlog.

“It’s very difficult for our staff to process something if they don’t know how to use the platform, much less train other staff how to do so,” Roberson said. “There’s a lot of challenges there that still need to be worked out.”

During Friday’s commission meeting, Reid said that OMES will do a review of the process and come to an agreement with OESC to take over those functions “as soon as possible.”

Asked by Commissioner Karen Hudson why those things weren’t covered in the commission’s measure to consolidate the agency’s IT functions under OMES, Reid said “It’s my understanding this is a more inclusive aspect of it that touches more than strictly the IT parts of it. Like in all businesses and organizations, things are kind of interwoven. So I think the OESC and OMES will need to delineate this and will come to an understanding before it’s transferred.”

In addition, consolidating the agency’s business practices under OMES “gives us the authority to start that dialogue and the direction from the commission to make those changes to ensure we get things as streamlined as possible and try to, as all of our goals is, to get the people their money and reduce the fraud,” Reid said.

Ostrow, who also attended Friday’s meeting said OESC would keep ownership and leadership of all processes and design plans, and that OMES would handle the work like an outside vendor would.

“This is not responsible for moving the (OESC) mission of the agency to another. This agency is responsible for the mission completely. This is just to support their IT functions,” Ostrow said. “From my perspective, this is a relationship between the agency that’s no different from a relationship with a third-party vendor. So if the relationship is not working, the agency has the ability to change it at any time and terminate the relationship.”

Asked by Adams what metrics Reid and OMES were using to determine whether the transition would be successful, Reid replied getting rid of the backlog of PUA claims and reducing fraud.

Roberson said that was also what OESC is working on, and the agency had administered $700 million in claims over the past two months.

“There’s still a lot we need to do with PUA,” Roberson said. “We’ve got to get PUA taken care of. We’re aware of those challenges, we are working through those challenges, but absolutely our metrics are based on that.”

Roberson said OESC did not ask for OMES to take over its business practices or IT division, and that OMES has had control of the agency’s IT department since the state’s Chief Information Officer Jerry Moore was appointed as OESC’s acting vice-president of technology on April 4.

“We did ask for Jerry Moore, we absolutely invited the collaboration the first week of April. We knew we needed additional help, we wanted that help. It was a fantastic opportunity for us to work with other agencies and receive that support,” Roberson told the commissioners. “So they (OMES) had full control over our IT department since that time and have been great at helping us implement some things. Of course, there’s still a lot we need to do. I definitely welcome more collaboration, but no, I did not request these items.”

Commissioner Trent Smith said the agency was not moving as fast as it could to process claims and that OMES had to help with the agency’s IT services, though he said Roberson was put in “an unwinnable situation.”

“There’s a lot of problems,” Smith said. “I know you’re doing your best, but this is, I mean, it’s starting to affect my reputation, one I’ve worked very hard for, and I’ve got to draw the line somewhere. I really hope we can move forward and get people the help they need. That is the only thing that matters right now.”

Roberson replied that her professional reputation had been “drug through the mud recently” as well.

“We just keep on moving forward,” Roberson said. “We’re close to getting through on PUA resolution with OMES, I’m sure. As soon as we get that done and we get a lot of these mitigation pieces put in place for fraud, we’re good. I agree that we need the assistance and additional help 100 percent. How that’s structured is a different question, but I am 100 percent in agreement we need more help, and there’s not a person in our office that would disagree with that either.”

Adams said his goal is to get money in people’s hands as quickly as possible, but “all I feel like this is doing is creating more conflict when we should all be focused on the same mission. I don’t know, in my opinion, that this is necessarily helping. I know that people want to feel like just because something changes that things are going to get better. But there’s no guarantee and there has been no guarantee in these motions that even measures whether or not it’s going to get better.”

Smith responded by saying that OMES Director Steve Harpe had personally assured him that half of the backlogged PUA claims would be processed by next Friday, and the remaining half would be processed the next week.

“That’s straight from Director Harper to my ears,” Smith said. “If he can do that, we need to let him do it.”

Roberson said OESC would also be able to process the backlog of PUA claims during that time period without consolidation under OMES, but the commission’s attorney was in the process of drafting a letter to the company that built the PUA platform, a Colorado-based company named Granicus.

“OMES is in charge of that (PUA claim site) with Granicus,” Roberson said. “Our legal counsel is drafting a letter to Granicus on our behalf today because we need them to put more help and assistance into that platform to make sure that it’s working.”

Roberson later told The Frontier that the letter was not sent Friday because of her resignation.

The measure passed 3-2 with Adams and Hudson dissenting.

About an hour after the meeting adjourned, Roberson announced that she had resigned.

In her resignation letter, Roberson, who came in to head the agency on Feb. 3, said it was an honor to have served.

“Although my tenure was short and through a historic crisis, I feel blessed to have served the citizens and employees of OESC,” Roberson wrote.

Roberson said she hopes to continue to work with the state government in some capacity, and plans to spend the summer with her children.

“I am very grateful for this opportunity,” Roberson said. “I was happy to serve my state and the citizens and the team there. It was fantastic to be able to be part of a group that did come together quickly. Everyone wants the same goal. Absolutely. And that is to take care of Oklahomans.”

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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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