July unemployment in county up to 7.7%, OESC says payment backlog reduced

Michael D. Smith

The Carter County unemployment rate rose slightly in July thanks to a small increase in labor force participation. Unemployment rose from 7.2% in June to 7.7% in July as every Oklahoma county saw monthly rates increase, according to unadjusted figures released by the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission on Wednesday.

The most recent county-level data reiterates the historic impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Oklahoma’s workforce. The Carter County unemployment rate is more than double the rate from July 2019, when only 3.6% of the labor force was without work.

While statewide unemployment is less than half of the seasonally adjusted record high 14.7% in April, the July unemployment rate of 7.1% is still more than double the rate from last year. County and state unemployment rates in July remained lower than national average of 10.2%.

Unemployment numbers skyrocketed across the country as a pandemic caused temporary or permanent business closures. The Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, which oversees unemployment benefit payments in the state, quickly became overwhelmed by the influx of claimants.

As businesses cautiously reopened over the summer and the number of Oklahomans filing for unemployment benefits started to drop, OESC officials were still wrestling with antiquated technology and modified payments. The number of claimants each week has fallen significantly but remains higher than any record set before the pandemic. 

OESC Executive Director Shelley Zumwalt said the agency is working to implement new federal assistance into state unemployment benefits, but the technology used to process the changes in eligibility, denominations, and funding source means a four- to five-week turnaround time before claimants see the extra funds.

“Those are a lot of changes for something that is not built to change on a dime,” Zumwalt said by phone last week.

The Lost Wages Assistance program allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to spend up to $44 billion from the Disaster Relief Fund for lost wage payments, according to FEMA. Oklahoma was the ninth state approved for the grants last month, but Zumwalt said moving those funds to unemployment claimants will not be like the extra $600 seen by claimants.

A major hurdle for OESC is the decades-old mainframe that processes figures for the agency. Zumwalt said the computer is more than 40 years old and was not designed to handle the number of claimants seen since March. Unlike the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program that attached an extra $600 to weekly benefits through July, LWA benefits cannot pass through the OESC trust fund.

“The only thing that the former FPUC, the $600 payment, has in common with the $300 payment is that they have two zeros,” Zumwalt said.

The major backlog of payments seems to be clearing and Zumwalt said most of the delays experienced by Oklahomans waiting for their benefits are not necessarily connected to the pandemic. 

For example, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance intended for someone not eligible for traditional unemployment benefits caused headaches for OESC employees trying to process those claims. Zumwalt, who was named interim director on May 27 and confirmed as executive director on Tuesday, said there was little consistency for claimants applying for PUA benefits.

She directed employees to dedicate time each day to work through the issues and held a series of in-person events to ease the burden on call centers in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Over the course of several weeks, the backlog of problems and payments has fallen from 120,000 to less than 10,000.

“We’re not seeing the system-wide issues we were seeing at the end of May, beginning of June,” Zumwalt said. “We have virtually eliminated system-wide issues that were happening with PUA. It’s behaving the way it should in the system.”

Zumwalt said a vast majority of delayed payments are now linked to errors with or investigations into claims. Some claims have multiple errors that take days or weeks to resolve, while other claims may have been contested by an employer.

“We have to go do our part to investigate that and talk to the claimant, talk to the employer, and that process can take up to a month to gather that information,” Zumwalt said.

While she is happy to see the backlog of claims drastically reduced compared to when she first took the job, Zumwalt said the work to update the agency’s infrastructure remains a top priority and admits the current state of OESC cannot handle any increased volume of claims.

She has proposed a compressed timeline for the agency’s technology project from five years to 18 months and hopes to publicly announce technology upgrades sometime next month.

“The agency needs a holistic business process change, and that is what we're going to deliver with that transformation,” Zumwalt said.