April unemployment spikes to 13.7%, unemployment chief resigns

Michael Smith

With state unemployment rates nearly a percentage point lower than the national average in April, data released Friday showed more than 242,000 unemployed Oklahomans last month. The data was released the same day Oklahoma’s top unemployment official reportedly resigned amid an historic strain on her now former commission.

Seasonally adjusted unemployment in Oklahoma skyrocketed to 13.7% between March and April, according to the Oklahoma Unemployment Security Commission Friday. Among the hardest hit sectors recorded among nonfarm employment were leisure and hospitality, with 50,300 jobs lost since March. Financial activities added about 300 new jobs in Oklahoma and was the only sector to see any month-to-month jump in job numbers.

The enormous number of jobless claims since late March has overwhelmed the OESC, and the state entity responsible for administering unemployment benefits while workers find jobs is now without its top official. Executive Director Robin Roberson resigned Friday, one day after appearing on a 30-minute Facebook Live video with a Tulsa group.

Gov. Kevin Stitt appointed Roberson to lead the commission in February, about a month before Oklahoma recorded its first case of COVID-19. In a brief statement Friday, Stitt thanked Roberson for her work and mentioned the problems facing the commission as thousands of Oklahomans wait for unemployment insurance benefits.

“Oklahomans have the expectation that state services will be available when they need them the most, and I know there are still many Oklahomans waiting for unemployment benefits. I have confidence that the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission will identify the right leader to quickly get to the bottom of the issues exposed by this pandemic, to continue to modernize its antiquated systems as we move forward, and to deliver the services Oklahomans deserve,” said Stitt.

Unemployment rates in the state had been slowly dropping for months until April. November 2019 unemployment rates sat near 3.4% and had fallen to 3.2% by March.

Oklahoma’s labor force also shrunk in April with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of workers with or looking for a job fell below 1.77 million for the first time since 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

More than 450,000 claims for unemployment benefits have been filed in Oklahoma since the onset of the pandemic. Along with record numbers of weekly unemployment claims, April’s unemployment rate in the state is the highest recorded by BLS dating back to 1976. The next highest unemployment rate in Oklahoma was recorded in April 1983, when 8.9% of the workforce was unemployed near the end of a nationwide economic recession.