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Legislative offices swamped with requests for help on unemployment claims

OKLAHOMA CITY — Legislative offices are swamped with pleas from constituents seeking help in obtaining unemployment benefits.

Meanwhile, the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission has known since before 2017 that its computer system needed an upgrade and has been collecting funds to pay for it.

The COVID-19 outbreak left many unemployed, resulting in record-breaking claims to the OESC.

The antiquated and hard-to-navigate system, a new form of aid for those who are self-employed and fraud have caused long waits and frustration for those seeking benefits.

Hundreds if not thousands have reached out to legislative aides for help.

One of those fielding the calls is Kathy Townsend, the executive assistant to Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville. By the time they reach out to Townsend, they are frightened and angry, she said.

She said the callers are not numbers: They are families with children and grandparents, some of whom have maxed out credit cards and can’t pay for needed medication.

Townsend said she didn’t think the situation could have been anticipated, but found it “appalling” when news of massive unemployment broke that steps were not taken earlier to shore up the system.

“It seems inexcusable to me they seem to be caught off guard,” she said.

She said she feels powerless to help the powerless.

Lawmakers have designated Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond, and Sen. James Leewright, R-Bristow, to collect the problems from other legislators’ constituents and forward it to the agency to streamline the process and provide consistency in reporting problems.

Martinez said the bottleneck is happening with Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, called PUA, which temporarily provides unemployment benefits to self-employed, freelance and independent contractors affected by COVID-19.

He said a system to handle PUA claims has not been designed, although lawmakers have been told numerous times it has been designed and ready to roll out. OESC can approve a claim manually, but that takes time, he said.

“Until they get their act together and get a PUA system designed, we will continue to see a backlog of people that can’t get approved,” he said.

Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa, called the situation “a mess.”

“It has been unacceptable,” she said.

In late April, Gov. Kevin Stitt asked the public for patience in processing unemployment claims.

“Give me another week and I am going to have this thing wrapped up,” Stitt said then.

Shelley Zumwalt in late May was tapped as interim executive director to replace Robin Roberson, who stepped down.

Zumwalt said legislative assistants are in a tough position. She said she wanted to acknowledge their dedication and work on the front lines.

“The PUA system is processing claims, but not nearly as efficiently and effectively as it should be to serve claimants,” Zumwalt said. “We are working day and night to solve this problem and acknowledge that there is still work to be done.”

She said a chat-box feature is being created to assist them. A date for it to become live has yet to be determined.

In 2017, after years of discussion, the Legislature passed House Bill 1110, by Rep. Randy McDaniel, R-Edmond, who is now state treasurer.

The measure diverted a small percentage of what employers pay into the unemployment system to a technology account capped at $39 million for a phased-in upgrade.

“They knew that over time this would be a priority that needed to be addressed and the time had come to get something done,” McDaniel said.

Zumwalt said that beyond documenting problems, “there were not any technological improvements.”

“We are dealing with technology from the 1970s that is really crippling a lot of the processes,” Zumwalt said. “Is it overcomeable? Yes. That being said, if this project had been completed by the time we hit COVID-19, we would be in a different place.”

The technology fund account has a balance of slightly more than $22 million. Some $1.4 million has been spent, she said.

Meanwhile, the agency has hired Saxum, a public relations firm, to help it communicate with the public about claims.

Zumwalt said it was cheaper to hire the firm than to put people on the payroll who may not be needed in six months.

The Saxum contract has a $25,000 limit, she said.


Q&A: Filing unemployment claims amid coronavirus-related job losses

Q&A: Filing unemployment claims amid virus-related job losses

Lucky in nature: Conservationist Jim Harman, 95, perseveres in his naturalist pursuits

FORT GIBSON — Handing over one of his better sets of binoculars, Jim Harman rolled off instructions on focusing the glasses as he has countless times, automatically.

“That’s going to help you see everything clearly,” he said.

At 95 years of age, Jim Harman has helped countless Oklahomans focus on nature. The lifelong naturalist returned home after a 30-year career as a wildlife refuge manager with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at age 55. For the past 40 years he has volunteered to lead countless school children on field trips and mentored untold numbers of grownups in the ways of the wilds.

In his role as a private citizen he likely has had an impact on Oklahoma conservation few others can or will ever match. He also has witnessed things in the wilds he never imagined, like the number of bald eagles now in this state.

A past president of the Indian Nations Audubon Society, many may remember Harman as a friendly face leading wintertime bald eagle tours below Fort Gibson Dam.

He can’t drive anymore but still has his caretaker take him around to monitor bald eagle nests from Fort Gibson to Gore for the Sutton Avian Research Center’s Bald Eagle Survey Team. He brings new flavor to the acronym BEST.

“I’ve done pretty well keeping myself out of the pool halls by volunteering for the Sutton Center,” he said.

He said it is a wonder that more than 200 eagle nests now dot the Oklahoma landscape. He monitors several for the center and last week, on a drive to see if some eagles on a new nest on the Illinois River near Gore still were around, he appreciated the success of the eagle reintroduction program.

“When they started that program in 1985 I thought if I lived long enough to see five or six eagle nests out of that reintroduction it would really be a big success,” he said. “The success of that program has been beyond any expectations. And I lived well beyond expectations,” he added with a laugh.

Life began for him on March 31, 1925, in a home that now is just across the street from the stockade area of the Fort Gibson Historic Site. His father was a market hunter for a short time but found the hours long and the pay low, Harman said. He was an entrepreneur who did some plumbing, and also owned a gravel operation and a riverboat service with his brother.

“That was our cattle pasture, where the stockade is now,” he said.

He grew up during the Great Depression but didn’t mention hardships as a child. He recalls following his father into the field to hunt birds and spending days with his older brother going up and down the Grand River, fishing, hunting quail and learning more about wildlife than he could truly appreciate at the time.

When he was too young he volunteered to join the U.S. Army Air Corps because “I wanted to be a hotshot pilot,” he said. He was turned down because he is color blind.

“I told them well if you want me then, you’re going to have to draft me,” he said. “About two weeks after I turned 18 they did!”

Despite his color blindness he still scored high in his Air Corps training to be a navigator for the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, but a near-fatal brush with rheumatic fever that hit him during training in South Dakota kept him grounded. He spent six months in the hospital with little more than aspirin for treatment and was discharged due to heart damage.

“You know you don’t even hear about that disease anymore with antibiotics,” he said. “Strep throat is all it was to start with.”

The military’s loss was the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s gain as Harman returned to Northeastern State University to gain a wildlife degree that would allow him to join the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation as “a fish guy” in 1949 and then soon transfer as a refuge manager at the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge in 1950.

In his career he saw the fledgling stages of Muleshoe refuge in Texas before its playas were joined under one boundary, and at the Aransas refuge on the Texas coast he watched over about 18 to 21 whooping cranes, the majority of the species at the time.

In 1958 he move to Hutchison, Kansas, and helped design and establish the Quivera National Wildlife Refuge.

“Not everyone up there was happy about that,” he said. “But everything I told them then has come true. It has become a major draw and people go there from all over the country.”

After 12 years at regional headquarters in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he bargained for a transfer to Tishomingo in 1978 and after 30 years, at age 55, he retired and returned to Fort Gibson to care for his ailing mother.

The past 40 years he played key roles as a leader in the Audubon Society and volunteered for committees to help rewrite laws for the refuge system and built hundreds of bluebird boxes for the North American Bluebird Society. But he said he believes his best contributions always have been in outreach to people and especially school children.

“More than anything I enjoyed teaching those kids about wildlife,” he said. “It’s something everyone can appreciate their whole life.”


Nature-inspired activities for all ages: A guide from Tulsa World's Outdoors writer

Nature-inspired activities for all ages: A guide from Tulsa World's Outdoors writer

Trump rally called ‘dangerous move’ in age of coronavirus

WASHINGTON — After months away from the campaign trail, President Donald Trump plans to rally his supporters next Saturday for the first time since most of the country was shuttered by the coronavirus. But health experts are questioning that decision.

Trump will head to Tulsa — a state that has seen relatively few COVID-19 cases. Yet the Tulsa City-County Health Department’s director told the Tulsa World over the weekend that he wished the Trump campaign would move the date back because of a “significant increase in our case trends.”

“I’m concerned about our ability to protect anyone who attends a large, indoor event, and I’m also concerned about our ability to ensure the president stays safe as well,” Dr. Bruce Dart said.

Other health experts also cite the danger of infection spreading among the crowd and sparking outbreaks when people return to their homes. The Trump campaign itself acknowledges the risk in a waiver attendees must agree to absolving them of any responsibility should people get sick.

What makes the rally high risk?

Trump’s rally will be held indoors, at a 19,000-seat arena that has canceled all other events through the end of July. Scientists believe the virus spreads far more easily in crowded enclosed spaces than it does outdoors, where circulating air has a better chance of dispersing virus particles.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines the highest risk events for transmission of the coronavirus this way: “Large in-person gatherings where it is difficult for individuals to remain spaced at least 6 feet apart and attendees travel from outside the local area.” The CDC recommends cloth masks in places where people might shout or chant.

Trump’s rallies typically draw tens of thousands of supporters. They usually stand outside in line for hours before passing through airport-style security and cramming into an arena, where they sit side by side or stand shoulder to shoulder. The rallies are typically raucous, with much shouting, cheering and chanting. Some people dance and jeer at reporters. Sometimes protesters are met with violence before they are removed by security.

Many attendees are older, which would put them at higher risk of severe complications from COVID-19. It’s not unusual for several individuals in the crowd to require medical attention when the temperature rises.

The rallies also typically draw supporters from surrounding towns and states. Some die-hard fans travel across the country from rally to rally like groupies for a band.

Dr. Ashish Jha, director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute, called the upcoming Trump rally “an extraordinarily dangerous move for the people participating and the people who may know them and love them and see them afterward.”

Trump supporters coming from neighboring cities and states could carry the virus back home, Jha said. “I’d feel the same way if Joe Biden were holding a rally.”

Oklahoma cases low but rising

In its final phase of reopening, Oklahoma now allows public gatherings of any size as long as organizers consider social distancing. Participants at any large gathering should stay 6 feet apart and wear a cloth face covering when distancing is a challenge, the state Health Department said.

The state has a relatively low death rate compared with the rest of the nation, but new cases are rising. In Tulsa, there were 82 new cases reported Saturday, a new high in daily increases for the county. The Tulsa Health Department already was investigating an outbreak linked to an indoor gathering of a large group of people.

Citing the spike in cases, Dart said he wished the rally would postponed to a later date “when the virus isn’t as large a concern as it is today.”

“I think it’s an honor for Tulsa to have a sitting president want to come and visit our community, but not during a pandemic,” Dart said in an interview Saturday with the Tulsa World.

Dart said the risk of spreading the virus increases with higher numbers of people congregating for longer periods of time.

Oklahoma health authorities said that anyone who attends a large public event should get tested for COVID-19 shortly afterward.

Shelley Payne, director of the LaMontagne Center for Infectious Disease at the University of Texas at Austin, said the Trump rally meets every criteria for the riskiest type of event.

“I would certainly recommend that people wear masks and try to keep as much distance as possible,” Payne said.

Julie Fischer, an associate research professor of microbiology and immunology at Georgetown University, said the event could have wide repercussions for the country.

“With a little bad luck, that scenario could end in the seeding of community outbreaks of COVID-19 across the U.S.,” she said.

Masks and precautions

The Trump campaign has declined to respond to repeated questions about whether it will require attendees to wear masks, socially distance or take other measures to reduce the risk of virus transmission.

Trump has made clear that he believes empty seats are bad optics. “I can’t imagine a rally where you have every fourth seat full. Every — every six seats are empty for every one that you have full. That wouldn’t look too good,” he said in April.

Trump also insisted that the marquee event of the Republican National Convention — his acceptance of his party’s nomination for reelection — be moved from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida, after North Carolina’s Democratic governor refused to promise he would not impose restrictions.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, a former neurosurgeon, said Trump’s rallies will be coordinated with public health authorities to maintain safety.

“As far as the virus is concerned, we have two choices: we can allow it to dominate us, or we can learn as much as we can about it and we can learn how to live with it in a safe, prescribed manner,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “And I think the second option is the one that’s going to be adopted.”

Why now?

Trump has been eager to resume the rallies that are the centerpiece of his campaign. The president revels in his large crowds. The events let him vent and gauge the kind of rhetoric that will appeal to his ardent political base. They also help his campaign expand its voter databases and will serve as a contrast to Democratic challenger Biden, who has suspended campaign events because of the virus and hasn’t attracted the same size of crowds.

But the decision to pull the trigger now was driven, in large part, by the mass anti-racism protests that have taken place across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Campaign and White House officials say the protests — and the limited public health outcry they generated — gave them cover. If it was OK for tens of thousands of people to march through the streets, demanding racial justice, why can’t Trump rally his supporters, too?

Of course, the protests were held outside, with many participants wearing masks.

“Any large gathering, whether of protesters or ralliers, is dangerous,” Jha said. But infection is less likely at an outdoors moving march than at a crowded event in an enclosed space, he said, citing the air flow.

The waiver

The Trump campaign, in recognition of the risk, has tried to protect itself from lawsuits with waiver language on its registration website.

“By clicking register below, you are acknowledging that an inherent risk of exposure to COVID-19 exists in any public place where people are present,” the campaign advised those signing up for the rally. “By attending the Rally, you and any guests voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19 and agree not to hold Donald J. Trump for President, Inc.” liable for illness or injury.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

There's a reason why firing police officers can be complicated

The May 25 death of George Floyd while under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin caused a national outcry for Chauvin to be fired — which he was, along with three other officers, the following day.

That, in turn, led some Tulsans to wonder whether a Tulsa Police Department officer could be fired under similar circumstances.

The answer, it appears, is yes.

Sort of.

Tulsa’s collective bargaining agreement with the Fraternal Order of Police and department regulations give the police chief final say within the department on most disciplinary matters.

But those decisions are subject to appeal — first to the city Human Resources Department, then to either the civil service commission or an outside arbitrator.

Officers charged with serious crimes, including murder and manslaughter, can be immediately suspended without pay or fired. By statute, a conviction ends their law enforcement career, at least in Oklahoma.

A suspended or fired officer found not guilty must be reinstated to the force with back pay and benefits.

“If an officer is charged, it allows me more latitude to suspend them without pay and begin the termination process,” Tulsa Police Chief Wendell Franklin.

“It’s a very complicated process,” Franklin said. “I know most people don’t understand that it’s not like private business, where you can fire someone without cause.”

Law officers are protected by a combination of their union’s binding arbitration agreement with the city, state and federal law, and civil service regulations.

Those protections were put into place in an attempt to limit favoritism and political influence in police departments. For instance, Tulsa police departments up through the 1930s were rife with patronage. New mayors sometimes replaced half the department or more.

Those protections may still be necessary, but Franklin and many other police chiefs say those protections slow them down.

“From my perspective, I’d like to have more flexibility to act more swiftly,” Franklin said.

One example of the system in action is the case of ex-TPD Officer Betty Shelby.

Shelby was suspended with pay following the Sept. 16, 2016, fatal shooting of Terence Crutcher. Six days later, when Shelby was charged with manslaughter, she was suspended without pay.

As a practical matter, officials say, there is little difference between being suspended without pay and being fired.

When a jury found Shelby not guilty the following spring, she was reinstated with back pay and benefits, but soon resigned and is now a Rogers County sheriff’s deputy.

An officer acquitted of criminal charges or never charged with criminal wrongdoing can still be fired if the department can show sufficient violation of department policy. But that can be difficult.

In 2011, the Owasso Police Department fired Lt. Mike Denton for violation of its excessive force policy after a surveillance camera caught him elbowing a prisoner in the face.

An arbitrator overruled the firing and the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals upheld the decision, returning Denton to duty with back pay and benefits and $35,000 in interest on his lost earnings.

Similarly, TPD Officer Gina Kepler won back her job last winter five years after being fired for refusing to answer investigators’ questions about her husband, fellow officer Shannon Kepler.

Shannon Kepler was convicted in 2017 of the shooting death of Jeremy Lake. Kepler was off duty at the time.

Jerad Lindsey, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 93, said the union doesn’t file all of the grievances requested by members.

“Misconduct within the TPD is not terribly common, either,” Lindsey said.

Lindsey said the department “now investigates every complaint, even the frivolous ones that just take up time. If (officers) don’t have their (body) cameras on, (the department) is doling out discipline.”

Tulsa’s contract with the FOP was due to expire at the end of this month but has been extended a year because of the COVID-19 epidemic. Officials expect formal discussions to resume sometime in the fall.

Transparency issues, including an independent monitor sought by Mayor G.T. Bynum and several city counselors, will likely be in the negotiation mix.

Making it easier to fire police might be, too.


Gallery: Black Lives Matter rally at Guthrie Green

Gallery: Black Lives Matter rally at Guthrie Green

Tulsa World's Let's Talk virtual town hall to feature debate on Medicaid expansion

Two leading state policy advocates will debate State Question 802 on the next Tulsa World Let’s Talk virtual town hall.

David Blatt, who teaches public policy in the master of public administration program at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa, and Jonathan Small, president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, will take on the June 30 ballot measure, which would bring Medicaid expansion to the state.

The Let’s Talk virtual town hall series is sponsored by the George Kaiser Family Foundation and hosted by the Tulsa World’s Editorial Pages Editor Wayne Greene.

Questions for the two panelists are welcome and can be emailed to wayne.greene@tulsaworld.com before 10 a.m. Tuesday.