State unemployment benefit payout surpasses $1.2 billion

Michael D. Smith
The Daily Ardmoreite

Historic unemployment levels continue as the head of Oklahoma’s employment commission admits difficulties for some seeking benefits. While initial weekly claims fell by nearly 21,000 last week, numbers of initial and continued claims remain at levels unseen before April.

Weekly first-time claims fell to 56,737 for the week ending June 13, according to unadjusted numbers from the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission on Thursday. That is down from the revised level of 77,525 claims the week before, but still more than 10 times higher than the highest weekly number seen between 2011 and early this year.

Weekly first-time unemployment claims fell below 60,000 last week. The four-week average, meant to be a less volatile indicator of those requesting benefits, has also experienced record swings during the pandemic.

The less volatile four-week average rose moderately but remained near 60,000 weekly initial claims last week. While employment officials have warned of a rise in fraudulent claims, numbers indicate continued pressure on the labor market as workers seek benefits after losing income.

The number of continued claims rose by 10,452 last week to 167,247, and about 77,000 claims were processed between June 10 and June 17, according to the OESC. More than $231 million of benefits were paid out in that time and more than $1.2 billion has been paid out since April, more than all benefits paid out between 2018 and 2019 combined. 

Weekly continued unemployment claims again neared 170,000 last week as the four-week average continued a trajectory indicating a growing number of job seekers.

Benefits paid to Oklahomans in recent weeks include those from the federal CARES Act, including Pandemic Emergency Assistance and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. Interim OESC Executive Director Shelley Zumwalt said staff is listening to feedback from claimants experiencing difficulties.

 “We continue to make progress and I’m proud of the work my staff continues to do to ensure Oklahomans are getting paid,” Zumwalt said in Thursday’s release. “I acknowledge there are still people who are having difficulties with the PUA process. We are working night and day to fix these issues and get those eligible claimants to their benefits.”

Unemployment in Oklahoma hit a record 14.7% in April and fell to 12.6% in May, according to information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Available data dating back four decades showed the unemployment rate next topping out at 8.9% in April 1983. Record low unemployment rates of 2.9%, not seen since 2000, were recorded in March, according to BLS.

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a number of changes for OESC in recent months. Soon after the onset in March, scores of additional representatives were hired to handle the increased calls that overwhelmed phone systems. A new website was launched in April to handle tens of thousands of new and continued claims. 

Most recently, former director Robin Robison was unexpectedly replaced by Zumwalt in May after about three months in that position.