“Cynthia from Broken Arrow…You’re live.”
Aid for the growing pandemic-induced unemployed in Oklahoma took the form of a statewide call-in show as the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission hosted a virtual town hall meeting Friday.
John from Norman and Kenny from Moore joined Cynthia and others raising inquiries during the hour-long session, which featured cordial callers and informed staff. At least 2,700 people joined the event online, and 22 people called in or had their online questions answered by OESC team members.
“I’m fairly new, and I don’t believe anyone in the whole world was ready for the impact of this historic, unforeseen level pandemic,” said Robin Roberson, executive director of the OESC. “Here in Oklahoma, I know we’re feeling that a little more because it is coupled with the energy crisis that began around the same time.”
Acknowledging that applying for unemployment recently has been a “really long, frustrating, confusing and discouraging experience,” Roberson said her office in the last four weeks has processed close to 200,000 claims, up from the 1,500 to 2,000 per-week average.
“We were not previously well-equipped to handle this type of volume nor was the (U.S.) Department of Labor really speedy in sharing this type of guidance we have to have in order to administer the new provisions in the CARES Act stimulus,” she said.
OESC is the only state agency completely funded by the U.S. Department, Roberson said.
Roberson noted how the office has streamlined the unemployment application process over the past three weeks, measures that include the governor’s office waiving the first-week waiting period. OESC also has waived the work-search criteria for the regular unemployment claim period, meaning that for the first 26 weeks applicants do not have to search for work.
Additionally, the agency has waived benefit wage charges for employers through Dec. 31, meaning that no unemployment tax will be charged to them related to COVID-19.
OESC’s new website, oesc.ok.gov, is able to handle tens of thousands of requests per minute and was relaunched Friday. Also, Roberson said that the call center staff has grown this week from a staff of 11 to 217, decreasing the average wait time to 15 to 30 minutes instead of six to eight hours.
“Oklahoma’s been in a great position of having a low unemployment rate,” Roberson said. “It’s been over 30 years since we’ve had any major unemployment in our state. We’re working hard to train all these people.”
Friday, staff answered inquiries ranging from how to activate an unemployment debit card to the wait time for the receipt of benefits. Hiccups, if there were any, came from ‘Can anybody hear me?’-callers slow to recognize they were on the air.
“I just wanted to tell everybody in the state that we understand the situation you’re in and we are working very hard,” Roberson said in closing. “We are all working very, very hard to make sure we get these new processes implemented as quickly as possible and added to all the resources so that we can serve you better and more quickly.”
Q&A: Filing unemployment claims amid virus-related job losses