OKLAHOMA CITY – President Trump’s signature Sunday on a $900 billion economic stimulus package will provide relief for many jobless Oklahomans, but there will be a temporary lapse in unemployment benefits.
The legislation includes a $300 boost to federal unemployment insurance benefits for up to 11 weeks. It will extend all pandemic unemployment programs to March 14, 2021, including Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC).
However, both of those programs expired on December 26. Consequently, claimants will experience a delay in receiving their benefits, according to Nick Buscemi, an Oklahoma Employment Security Commission (OESC) public information specialist.
Some PUA claimants may also be eligible for a supplemental $100-per-week benefit above their base amount, Buscemi reported. Those are unemployed workers who earned at least $5,000 a year in self-employment income but are disqualified from receiving PUA because they qualify for other state jobless aid.
“These extensions and additional programs are not available in Oklahoma yet, as we are waiting on guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor before we can make any necessary updates to our systems to distribute those funds,” Buscemi said Monday.
“We are prepared to distribute the funds as quickly as possible once we receive this information, and, if necessary based on the guidance we receive from the U.S. DOL, make any updates needed to pay out these benefits.”
PUA and PEUC claimants do not need to file another unemployment claim if they have already done so, even if they exhausted their benefits earlier this year, the OESC stated.
A policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, a workers’ advocacy group, said it might take two to three weeks for states to update their computer systems to resume the aid programs and pay out the extra $300.
Most out-of-work employees will receive a one-time $600 coronavirus relief payment. That benefit will target jobless employees who earned up to $75,000 in 2019, and $1,200 for couples who earned up to $150,000 a year.
The 5,593-page COVID-19 stimulus bill also provides a one-time payment of $600 per child, with no cap on the number of children a household can claim.
The federal government will begin sending relief payments next week via direct deposit, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Monday.
$400 ALWA BENEFIT SCRAPPED
The State Extended Benefits program, which was intended to provide up to 13 weeks of unemployment benefits to regular Unemployment Insurance (UI) claimants. ended December 12.
In a related matter, the Additional Lost Wage Assistance (ALWA) program was intended to provide 120,000 Oklahomans with additional relief from the pandemic, using funds remaining from the LWA program that was administered in August and September.
“After we received conflicting guidance from our federal partners, we delayed distribution of those payments until a decision was made on the federal relief package,” Buscemi said.
Based on recommendations from the U.S. Department of Labor and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Oklahoma will return those funds to FEMA as a result of the recent passage of the latest federal relief bill, OESC Executive Director Shelley Zumwalt said.
“Although no Oklahomans will receive the one-time $400 ALWA payment, we believe the federal package ultimately provides more, and longer-term, relief to Oklahomans,” she said.
For the filing week that ended December 19, the unadjusted advance number of initial unemployment claims totaled 4,270, a decrease of more than 1,000 from the previous week’s revised level. For the same file week, the less volatile initial claims four-week moving average of initial claims was 4,819 a decrease of almost 400 from the previous week’s revised average.
The advance unadjusted number of continued claims for the week ending December 19 totaled 36,785, a decrease of 8,221 from the previous week’s revised level. For the same file week, the less volatile four-week moving average of continuing claims was 43,550, a decrease of more than 3,060 from the previous week’s revised average.
Oklahoma’s unemployment rate increased from 3.4% in November 2019 to 5.9% in November 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on December 18. During that same period Oklahoma lost 77,600 jobs, records indicate.
Nevertheless, the state unemployment rate was 6.2% in October and 7.1% in July, ledgers reflect.
The state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund contained at least $127 million during the week that ended December 20, Buscemi said. In comparison, the trust fund balance on May 24 was $1.484 billion, the highest it had been in at least 22 years, an OESC spokesman said.
Maximum unemployment benefit payments this year from Oklahoma’s UI Trust Fund are $539 and the minimum benefit is $16, according to the OESC.
CONTRIBUTION RATE GOING UP IN 2021
Oklahoma’s UI trust fund is underwritten with taxes collected from employers and has been supplemented this year with infusions of federal stimulus aid; for example, Gov. Kevin Stitt allocated $100 million of CARES Act funds to the UI Trust Fund in November. Approximately 90,000 employers pay into the UI Trust Fund, an OESC spokesperson said in October.
Conditional Factor D will be imposed in 2021 to replenish the trust fund.
The Oklahoma Employment Security Act specifies four condition factors, A, B, C and D, all of which boost the balance in the unemployment trust fund. “A” is the least severe measure imposed on employers, while “D” is the most severe.
The increase in unemployment insurance rates “will vary employer to employer,” Zumwalt said. The current rate schedule is .01% to 5.5%. The rate for 2021 will be .03% to 7.5%. “Nearly three-fourths of Oklahoma employers (72%) will see their rates come in at .03%,” Zumwalt said.
A company’s unemployment tax is calculated as a percentage of payroll per employee, up to the annual tax- able wage base ($18,700 in 2020).
The UI Trust Fund is projected to accrue $550 million to $600 million from employer contributions next year, “if the economy proves to be good,” Zumwalt said on October 26.