Unemployment representatives ask for appointments to slow virus spread

Michael D. Smith
The Daily Ardmoreite
A sign on the door of the American Job Center in Ardmore on Wednesday asks visitors to schedule an appointment, while a window sign asks visitors with symptoms of COVID-19 to return home. Job seekers needing assistance are aksed to stay in the car until their appointment, and visitors were seen being escorted in and out one at a time by staff.

Concerns over the novel coronavirus have put tens of thousands of Oklahomans out of work and led to a massive strain on the Oklahoma Unemployment Security Commission since March. As virus cases continue to mount halfway through the month of June, employment offices across the state are moving away from walk-in services and shifting to appointment-based services.

Interim OESC Executive Director Shelley Zumwalt issued a statement Monday directing claimants who need assistance to call local Oklahoma Works offices and schedule appointments with representatives. “We ask claimants for patience since the centers are receiving a record number of calls,” Zumwalt said. 

OESC representatives in Ardmore may assist walk-in traffic if appointments conclude early, but appointments are strongly suggested. “To maintain social distancing, we do encourage citizens to call the office to first schedule an appointment though,” said OESC spokesperson Jeff Fryer in a Wednesday email.

Job seekers in Oklahoma requesting unemployment benefits have been directed to any one of 26 American Job Centers scattered across the state for appointments with OESC representatives. Those offices are part of the Oklahoma Works initiative and offer workforce development and employment services, according to a 2019 document from the Governor’s Council for Workforce and Economic Development.

The Ardmore location is one of 16 affiliate Oklahoma Works locations and had a sign on the main entrance Wednesday directing visitors to make appointments. Another sign urged visitors with COVID-19 symptoms or close contact with someone ill to return home.

A person uses a cell phone after seeing a sign directing visitors to call and make an appointment at the American Job Center on Wednesday. Oklahoma's top employment official announced Monday that meetings with representatives would be scheduled to promote social distancing at offices.

Fryer said that staffing has remained the same since the onset of the pandemic. While only a few staff members deal specifically with unemployment questions, other employees offer other employment services and programs through partner agencies.

“The programs on site assist citizens with finding work, utilizing education and/or employment benefits (non-unemployment), or connecting to other resources to help in obtaining employment goals,” he said.

Appointments to meet with OESC representatives are usually made within a week, according to Fryer.

Oklahoma’s unemployment rate skyrocketed to 13.7% between March and April, and Carter County saw local unemployment soar to 18.3%. More than $1 billion in claims were processed between April and May, according to the OESC, which was more than all of 2018 and 2019 combined.

The historic levels have put a strain on the OESC and coincided with a website overhaul in April and a leadership change last month. Zumwalt was named interim director on May 27, less than a week after the resignation of her predecessor Robin Roberson, who had only been on the job since February.