Unemployment claims continue record climb, as state weighs rollbacks of COVID-19 measures

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New Oklahoma unemployment claims filed by month, through the second week of April. CLIFTON ADCOCK/The Frontier
Unemployment claims continued to climb in Oklahoma last week, new data from the U.S. Department of Labor shows, though the number of claims filed was less than previous weeks since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Though the newly-released unemployment numbers for the week ending April 11 show a smaller increase in new unemployment claims since the previous week, 48,977 new claims compared to 60,534 new claims filed the previous week.

However, the data also shows that one-and-a-half times more new unemployment applications have already been filed during the first two weeks of April (109,511) than the entire month of March (70,301). The surge of unemployment claims in Oklahoma began the week ending March 21, the data shows.

New claims filed during both March and April dwarf previous months’ claims, which were averaged around 8,200 new claims per month over the past year, according to the data.

Oklahoma’s unemployment insurance trust fund, which had the seventh best solvency rating among the states prior to the pandemic, still have more than $1.1 billion in it on Thursday, said Oklahoma Employment Security Commission Chief of Staff Cyndi Phillips.

As of Thursday, the Oklahoma State Department of Health reported 2,357 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state, with 131 total confirmed deaths from the disease. Nationally, there were more than 605,000 confirmed cases and 24,582 confirmed deaths from the pandemic.

Since the surge in claims began in late March, the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission has added numerous people to its call-in line, increased the available bandwidth for its online claims system and added other features to its website to help workers file claims, according to the OESC. Previously, callers were facing 8-hour wait times, and those who tried to access the website to file claims were often unable to.

“Our numbers for last week are still extraordinarily high as additional employers cut staff and implemented layoffs to adjust to this dramatic downturn in the economy,” OESC Executive Director Robin Roberson said in a media release. “As an agency responsible for connecting displaced workers with unemployment benefits, we continue to make tremendous strides in disbursing funds to provide relief.”

Some relief from the federal government has already headed to workers and businesses through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, a $2 trillion relief package passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump, including the $1,200 payments to individuals earning less than $75,000 per year, increased unemployment benefits of $600 per-week until July 31 and Small Business Administration disaster loans.

One program, the Payroll Protection Program, which provided no-interest forgivable loans to small businesses to maintain worker employment, has already run out of money less than two weeks after opening.

As of Thursday, the OESC had yet to unveil an online claims system for workers who qualify for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program — a program under the CARES Act that would allow workers who do not quality for traditional unemployment benefits because they are self-employed, independent contractors or do not have enough work history for unemployment. Last week, OESC said it hoped to go live with the system this week, but upgrades to the system are not yet available, Phillips said.

Nationally, the seasonally adjusted initial unemployment claims filed last week came to more than 5.2 million, down from the previous week’s level of 6.6 million. The advance seasonally adjusted insured unemployment rate for the United States was 8.2 percent for the week ending April 4, the highest rate since May 1975, which had a rate of 7 percent.

On Wednesday, Oklahoma Secretary of Commerce and Workforce Development Sean Kouplen said the state’s unemployment rate — an estimate that includes both those receiving unemployment benefits as well as unemployed people who are not receiving benefits — was around 13.2 percent, up from a rate of 3.2 percent in February.

If accurate, that would be significantly higher than the highest unemployment rate for the state since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking the numbers in 1976. Those historical numbers show Oklahoma’s highest unemployment rate as occurring in April 1983, at 8.9 percent.

Because of the way the unemployment rate is calculated, official numbers for the state’s unemployment rate as a result of the pandemic will likely not be available until May.

During a teleconference on Wednesday, Kouplen said there is a “healthy tug-of-war” in Gov. Kevin Stitt’s administration about when to reopen the state. In late March, Stitt issued an executive order stating that all non-essential businesses in 19 counties would be required to close to help stop the spread of the virus. Later, that order was amended to include all 77 counties and extended it until April 30.

Thousands of businesses sent requests for clarification about whether they were considered essential to the Oklahoma Department of Commerce. Last week, Kouplen said almost all manufacturing companies and almost all businesses that sell a product fall under the “essential” category, while almost all businesses that sell a service do not.

During a press conference Wednesday, Stitt said he is working with health officials to lay the groundwork for reopening the state’s economy.

“I am hopeful we are coming to the end of this and we’ll be able to open things pretty quickly,” Kouplen said. “There is a lot of discussion about when we are going to open things back up. As you can imagine, there is a very healthy tug-of-war between the businesspeople, who you are hearing from today, and the health people who say let’s be a little more cautious. We’ll see where the Governor lands on this, but I just have a strong feeling we will begin to see things open up by the end of this month in the next couple weeks and maybe sooner.”

The state has also opened a Manufacturing Reboot Program using $5 million from the Governor’s Quick Action Closing Fund that would help the state’s economy “catapult out of this rather than claw our way out,” said Oklahoma Department of Commerce Executive Director Brent Kisling.

The program, which has an application deadline of Friday, provides manufacturers with between $25,000 and $150,000 in funds for employment training, the purchase of new equipment or the delivery of goods.

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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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