OKLAHOMA CITY – More than half a million claims submitted by jobless Oklahomans have been processed by the Oklahoma Employment Security, but approximately 5,000 claims require additional review, OESC Interim Executive Director Shelley Zumwalt said recently.
Among those is the case of an Oklahoma City man who has received just one unemployment check, a $600 stimulus payment that was reduced to $522 after taxes were withheld, in the last 10 weeks – despite having communicated with the OESC more than two dozen times over the past two and a half months and having met with an agent in an office where the Oklahoma Cityan may have been exposed to the coronavirus.
The OESC reported it processed 586,460 Unemployment Insurance (UI) claims between March 1 and June 21. Of those, 234,437 were approved, 350,041 were denied, and 1,982 were under review on June 24.
In addition, the state agency said it processed 46,518 Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) claims between March 1 and June 21. Of those PUA claims, 12,221 were approved, 7,145 were denied, and 990 were under review on June 24.
PUA is a program that temporarily expands unemployment insurance eligibility to self-employed workers, freelancers, independent contractors, and part-time workers impacted by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. PUA is one of the programs established by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a $2 trillion coronavirus emergency stimulus package that President Trump signed into law on March 27.
For the week that ended June 20, the number of initial, unadjusted unemployment claims totaled 49,208, and the unadjusted number of Oklahomans who continued to receive unemployment benefits totaled 178,974. Thus, 228,000 Oklahomans were out of work on that date.
According to the U.S. Labor Department, the largest increases in initial claims for the week ending June 13 were in Oklahoma and Texas.
Nationally, 19.5 million Americans were collecting unemployment benefits during the week ending June 13, an advance seasonally adjusted insured unemployment rate of 13.4%, a slight decrease from the previous week.
Ms. Zumwalt said the OESC had “mitigated” more than 64,000 fraudulent unemployment claim attempts since March 1. “There was no breach of the OESC database,” agency Public Information Officer Jeff Fryer said Friday. “It is likely that the information used to file the fraudulent claims were stolen as a result of the Experian data breach in 2017 or one of the breaches that occurred at financial institutions in preceding years.”
OKC Man Eking Out a Living Despite No $$
The public relations firm Saxum, which is being paid $25,000 by the OESC to assist in its public information efforts, reported that more than $1.4 billion in total unemployment benefits (UI, PUA, Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation) were paid by the OESC between March 1 and June 19.
Among those who exhausted his regular unemployment benefits and has waited for 10 weeks to receive Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) is Joey Nelson of Oklahoma City.
Five years ago he moved from Atlanta, Ga., to Oklahoma City, where he worked as an independent claims adjuster for a national insurance company before losing his job. He has no surviving family.
“I’ve maxed out my credit cards; have to check the balances daily to avoid overdrawing them. I have rent, insurance, and other bills, too,” he told the Southwest Ledger. “I feel like a third-rate citizen. It’s degrading.”
Nelson said he turned 63 on Friday and hasn’t applied for Social Security because he had hoped to wait until age 66½ in order to receive the full retirement benefit.
He said he applied for PEUC after his regular unemployment benefits expired on April 18.
Nelson said he finally received a $600 FPUC stimulus payment (actually $522 after taxes were deducted) on June 20. However, those payments are scheduled to end on July 25.
Still No Relief After 25+ Times
Nelson said he placed his first call to the OESC on April 16 and has called at least once every week since. His detailed records of his efforts show that he has communicated with the OESC more than 25 times via telephone, email, and internet chatline – “a total waste of time; I have a copy of the transcript” – in attempts to get his case resolved. In addition, the Ledger informed the OESC about his plight in four separate emails: on June 1, 3, 24, and 25.
Nelson said he never got past a Tier 1 agent, despite asking repeatedly to speak to a Tier 2 agent. Tier 2 agents typically handle claims ranging from incorrect answers provided on an application to insufficient documentation provided in support of a claim.
Nelson said he finally got an appointment to meet with an OESC agent at the NE 23rd Street office in Oklahoma City on June 17 to discuss his case.
He said he was previously informed that his main ticket number was marked resolved by an unidentified OESC employee; however, two other ticket numbers were supposed to have been merged with the main ticket number, but weren’t, he learned. Consequently, OESC’s paperwork on his claim reflected – incorrectly – that his case had been settled.
Additionally, he discovered belatedly that the agent with whom he met at the OKC office altered his records, changing his state of residence from Oklahoma to North Dakota and deleting Nelson’s Social Security number.
When Nelson called the agent back last week, he got a voicemail message in which the agent announced that he was on indefinite leave. And the next day the OESC announced that the NE 23 rd Street office would be closed for two days because an unidentified employee had tested positive for the coronavirus.
The office was closed June 25-26 “for cleaning and sanitizing, under guidance from the Oklahoma State Department of Health,” Fryer explained. The OSDH is performing contact tracing for individuals who may have been present at that time, and the office will reopen on Monday, Fryer said.
Individuals who are seeking assistance or resolution to their unemployment claims should call the OESC’s Customer Service center at 1-800-555-1554 “or call/visit one of our local offices,” Fryer advised. “In most cases, issues can be resolved over the phone, which means individuals can reach outside their local area and avoid having to drive in person to the office building,” he said. For a listing of OESC offices, go to https://oesc.ok.gov/oesc-office-location-finder.
Unable to get any satisfaction from the OESC, Nelson contacted the office of state Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, on Friday. Treat, who represents the area in northwest OKC where Nelson lives, is the President Pro Tempore of the Oklahoma Senate.
Benefits under the PEUC program could continue to be paid for up to 13 weeks, through the end of this year. Anyone who has a pending claim that is resolved after July 25 will be entitled to receive the benefits for which they would have qualified prior to that date, backdated to when they filed their initial claim.
OESC Schedules In-Person Events
Nelson certainly is not alone. People have been gathering at the Will Rogers Building near the State Capitol, starting as early as 2 a.m., in hopes of getting an audience with someone who can resolve issues with their unemployment claims.
Consequently, OESC will host multiple days of in-person, socially distanced claim processing events in the coming weeks. “We recognize that many of the claimants who have outstanding needs require in-person meetings with OESC staff to address more complex problems, and we want to resolve these issues as quickly as possible,” Zumwalt said.
The first of these events will take place in Oklahoma City at the Reed Conference Center on July 1-2 and July 8-9, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The agency also is exploring options for additional claim processing events in Oklahoma City and Tulsa in the coming weeks. Additional details about the first OKC events will be made available early next week.
Congresswoman Horn Offers Federal Support
In a related matter, U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn sent a letter to Gov. Kevin Stitt, asking him what resources he needs to fix Oklahoma’s broken unemployment system.
It was the second letter the Democrat congresswoman from Oklahoma City sent to the Republican governor from Tulsa, offering assistance. Stitt did not respond to the first letter Horn sent on April 21.
After hearing from hundreds of Oklahomans waiting on unemployment assistance, Representative Horn conducted an unemployment assistance survey to assess where Oklahoma’s unemployment program was falling short. The survey, published on May 20, found that Oklahomans face months-long delays and multiple barriers to receiving unemployment assistance.
“Right now many Oklahoma families are hanging on by a thread,” Congresswoman Horn wrote to Governor Stitt on June 25. “Tens of thousands of Oklahomans who lost their jobs due to COVID-19 are in crisis and have still not received the unemployment assistance they are entitled to under the CARES Act. I write today to request a list of resources and federal guidance that your Administration needs to fix Oklahoma’s failed unemployment program.
“Forcing unemployed Oklahomans to line up before sunrise, directing them to jammed phone lines, and turning them away are not acceptable solutions, nor do they uphold the Oklahoma Standard. We must provide unemployed Oklahomans relief now. I stand ready to assist in securing any federal resources or regulatory guidance needed by your administration to fix our state’s unemployment program.
“…Congress provided nearly $11 million to the State of Oklahoma under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to hire new staff and meet the increased need for unemployment assistance. This legislation also provided no-interest federal loans to cover the costs of state unemployment benefits.
“If our state needs additional federal support to adequately implement the unemployment assistance which Oklahomans are entitled to, please provide a description of the federal resources or regulatory guidance needed. I will work with the rest of the Oklahoma congressional delegation to fight for any necessary assistance in Congress.”