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County jobless rate falls sharply as Ardmore event helps resolve unemployment claims

Michael D. Smith
The Daily Ardmoreite
The waiting area at the Ardmore Convention Center with about a dozen people waiting for assistance with their jobless claim on Wednesday. Ardmore is the third Oklahoma city to host events meant to give face-to-face assistance to people unable to resolve problems online or by phone.

The June unemployment rate in Carter County fell sharply as every Oklahoma county finally saw monthly rates fall below 10%, according to data released Thursday. Despite statewide unemployment rates far higher than pre-pandemic levels, the top unemployment official in Oklahoma expressed cautious optimism that labor woes are being mitigated in the state.

Along with improving monthly data between May and June, the number of those needing assistance navigating the unemployment insurance system also seems to be dropping. A two-day event at the Ardmore Convention Center helped fewer than the 1,200 capacity that was originally set. 

Events in Oklahoma City and Tulsa provided assistance to about 8,000 earlier this month. Even though the events have been centered around larger population areas, the events have helped people from all corners of the state.

McKenzie Richmond is a student at Oklahoma State University and lives in Stillwater. She worked her restaurant job in Tulsa until 1 a.m. Wednesday morning then immediately drove to Ardmore for help with her unemployment claim from March.

Even though she received some unemployment benefits when she initially lost her job, her claim was later flagged as fraudulent and payments stopped. Phone calls and emails to resolve the situation were never answered.

“It’s very hard to get a hold of people when you call the number,” Richmond said Wednesday. “I’d sit on hold for two hours, then the call would disconnect. If you call back, they’d tell you that their wait time is too high and to try again another time.”

She has since picked up more work but still wanted to get her claims resolved. Once a friend told her about the Ardmore event, Richmond traded work shifts to make sure she could see a state unemployment representative in person.

After driving several hours through the night, she spent less than an hour at the convention center and was able to provide all the documents needed to resolve her case. “It’s way easier coming here than talking on the phone,” Richmond said.

Claimants wait for representatives from the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission to assist with jobless claims at the Ardmore Convention Center on Wednesday. Up to 1,200 passes were available for the two-day event but far less were reserved.

Shelly Zumwalt, the interim Executive Director for the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, said the in-person events have been one way to help support the system overwhelmed with a record number of claimants since March. 

“While these claims events have taken place, we’ve lowered our call volume, hired and are training new staff, which will double the number of staff in the OESC Oklahoma City and Tulsa call centers, and continued processing claims at a high level,” she said.

Even though OESC has increased telephone support from fewer than 100 operators to more than 450 since the pandemic’s onset, Zumwalt said these events have been important in freeing up telephone support services.

“The system let them down, for sure. I think being able to have that face-to-face contact in a safe environment, for a lot of people, is what they needed to put the situation behind them,” Zumwalt said.

Other unique barriers have prevented phone calls from providing effective assistance. She said the first event in Oklahoma City saw about 200 Vietnamese speakers seeking help with unemployment insurance claims. Aside from language barriers, Zumwalt said many more claimants simply do not have the computer literacy needed to complete the process without assistance.

A sign directs claimants near a section of the Ardmore Convention Center designated to address fraudulent unemployment claims on Wednesday. Similar events across Oklahoma have provided support for up to 9,000 people.

According to data released by OESC on Thursday, Carter County saw unemployment plummet from 15.8% in May to 7.4% in June. Even compared to the 18.6% county unemployment rate from April, the most recent unemployment update is dire compared to the 3.6% rate recorded in June 2019. 

Carter County’s June unemployment rate was among the highest in the state. Much of the county’s drop in unemployment came less from the 673 new jobs added and more from the 1,259 dropped from the labor force. As a result, county unemployment fell from 3,442 in May to 1,510 in June.

Statewide unemployment fell from 12.6% in May to 6.6% in June, according to data released last week. Oklahoma had the fifth lowest unemployment rate in the nation in June, behind Kentucky, Idaho, North Dakota, Maine and Utah, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The historically high unemployment rates in Oklahoma since March have put a massive strain on OESC resources and infrastructure. Zumwalt, who was named interim director in June, has spent her first few weeks on the job working through a backlog of claims and identifying areas that need to be updated. 

Zumwalt said expanded call center capabilities are only one problem facing the OESC. A computer mainframe that processes unemployment data and other reports for OESC is over 40 years old and regularly proves to be outdated. 

Other changes have been made with how benefits are distributed. Zumwalt said changes to direct deposit requests have been implemented to reduce the number of fraudulent claims. She also hinted that investigations have been launched into other fraudulent activity regarding payments.

OESC is expected to announce plans to update technology and claimant identity verification beginning next month to further improve the agency and its security.

No other OESC assistance events have been scheduled, but Zumwalt said she and her staff will continue to assess the needs of claimants.