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

More than three months after the novel coronavirus pandemic caused a surge in Oklahoma’s unemployment, thousands of Oklahoma workers continue to wait for unemployment assistance, prompting the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission to expand its efforts to offer in-person assistance.

Since reopening its offices in early June, the OESC’s headquarters at the Will Rogers Building in Oklahoma City has been inundated by people seeking assistance with their unemployment claims. Workers often began forming lines to the building in the early morning hours, with lengthy lines forming around the building by 6 a.m. and cutoffs of less than 200 people. Each day scores of people who had waited for hours were turned away.

On Wednesday and Thursday, OESC is hosting an unemployment claims processing event at the Reed Center in Midwest City to help workers who had issues filing their claims online. Shelley Zumwalt, interim director of OESC, said the goal was to process up to 500 claims each day of the event.

Though it had planned to also have a similar two-day event next week — on July 8 and 9 — at the Reed Center, OESC announced that it was extending the Midwest City event to include July 6 and 7.

Zumwalt, who has been in the position for about a month, told The Frontier that OESC is also planning to host an in-person claims processing event in Tulsa on July 15 and 16, though a location has yet to be determined.

During the events, OESC will assist people with Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims and claim issues, people who never received debit cards with unemployment funds, initial claim filing,  victims of fraudulent claims and those with language or technical barriers, Zumwalt said. A representative for the company that makes the debit cards unemployment funds are loaded onto, Conduent, will also be present at next week’s events, she said.

Zumwalt said the long lines in front of the Will Rogers Building prompted her to seek a larger location where more claims could be processed each day while maintaining social distancing recommendations, and to provide a greater level of comfort to those waiting for assistance.

“My number one priority is making sure people are safe, and twin to that is processing claims and getting people those benefits they deserve,” Zumwalt said. “If I could serve every person in the line then I would absolutely. But it’s a first-come-first-serve situation.”

“It makes me nervous to have people camping out overnight to get their claims processed,” she said. “This is not something that I think is what I want to be happening or think this is the way we solve this problem.”

Many of those having to wait in line faced issues that couldn’t be solved through the website, such as language barriers or technical issues with Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Claims — unemployment benefits for self-employed individuals and others who would not otherwise qualify for traditional unemployment.

“This situation has surprised me in so many times, just in the needs people have,” Zumwalt said.

Despite the long lines, Zumwalt said OESC is making progress on processing the record-breaking number of unemployment claims that have flooded in since March. The OESC’s claims website, though still operating off a decades-old system, has become more user friendly and fewer claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance are having to be guided through the system by OESC employees, she said, and more OESC contract workers capable of handling over-the-phone claims issues have been brought on board.

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

However, there are still large numbers of fraud cases, and new types of unemployment fraud, that are still causing issues.

Thus far, investigators have identified around 70,000 fraudulent claims filed with the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, many of which were filed by fraudsters using another person’s name and information, Zumwalt said, and that number is likely to continue increasing. Around 750,000 claims have been filed with OESC since the pandemic began, she said.

On Monday, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of the Inspector General and the U.S. Department of Justice announced that they had stopped payment on nearly 3,800 fraudulently filed unemployment insurance claims, including 1,300 filed from a range of IP addresses located in London, England, during the month of June.

Though most of the unemployment fraud claims thus far have been individuals filing false claims, Zumwalt said there have been a handful of cases where funds are transferred off the pre-loaded benefit cards issued to claimants to fraudulent bank accounts.

After a person’s unemployment claim is approved, the applicant’s “pay file” is sent from OESC to Conduent, which prints and ships to the recipient the debit cards the funds are loaded on to. However, in some cases, the funds were transferred off the cards and into a fraudulent bank account, Zumwalt said.

Zumwalt said OESC has requested from Conduent numbers showing how many times such fraudulent transfers have happened and how much money has been lost because of the transfers, but as of Monday, the company had yet to respond to the state’s request.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation have opened an investigation of how the transfers occurred, Zumwalt said.

In a statement to The Frontier, Conduent said it is working with the OESC to stop the fraudulent transfers, but that the fraudulent transfers were not the result of a data breech of Conduent’s systems.

“We are aware that wrongdoers have targeted existing benefit recipients to obtain unemployment funds from rightful claimants or have fraudulently applied for benefits on behalf of unknowing residents,” the statement from Sean Collins, Conduent’s senior director of external communications, read. “Fortunately, Conduent’s systems and data stored for the state were not compromised. Conduent also is collaborating with law enforcement officials in their investigation to address these incidents.”

To prevent those fraudulent transfers, Zumwalt said, OESC and Conduent have agreed to no longer make direct deposit an option for those approved for unemployment funds until they receive a physical copy of the card in the mail, though those who have already authorized direct deposit will not be affected, she said.

“Fraudulent individuals won’t’ be able to transfer money off the card unless they have the card,” under the new policy, Zumwalt said. “That’s what we required of Conduent and they agreed.”