A state unemployment office official said Monday that the agency has removed administrative holds that prevented nearly one-third of the backlogged jobless claims from being processed, sometimes for weeks.
“I’m confident in saying that we have processed roughly 29% of the claims backlog ...,” said Shelley Zumwalt, interim executive director of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, during a news conference held at the state Capitol and aired live on Facebook. The backlog of cases includes claims for regular unemployment benefits and claims for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which is largely for self-employed workers.
The bulk lifting of the holds applied to cases that had been in an administrative limbo. The agency targeted cases where the application was hung up after the claimant answered certain work-search related questions that are not pertinent during a pandemic, Zumwalt said.
Had the holds not been removed on those cases, it would have taken the agency until 2022 to eliminate the backlog, she said.
“This means that for the first time in four, six, maybe even eight weeks, some people will have the ability to file for multiple back weeks of pay that they previously had not been able to file for,” Zumwalt said.
The measure was taken to process claims that had been in an administrative hold for up to eight weeks as workers waited for a call back from the agency after getting tripped up during the application questionnaire process, Zumwalt said.
The change doesn’t mean the claims have necessarily been paid, she said. A person seeking PUA for instance must first have their claim for regular unemployment insurance denied before they can seek the federal pandemic assistance.
Zumwalt was named interim director of the state agency Wednesday after Robin Roberson resigned from the post.
Zumwalt said the move to clear the holds on cases should have been done “four, six, eight weeks ago.”
Since the COVID-19 outbreak began here in mid-March, more than 476,000 jobless claims have been filed in the state. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state agency processed about 2,000 claims during a typical year.
The agency has been the ire of thousands of jobless workers who have been unable to see their application for jobless benefits through to the end as the COVID-19 pandemic strangles the state economy.
Much of that ire has been directed at the agency’s telephone help line.
Zumwalt said that’s why she opted to bring OESC call-takers who can process claims “on the front lines so on first contact people can have resolution,” Zumwalt said.
Early on in the pandemic as workers began to lose their jobs, the OESC added scores of call takers who fielded initial calls from claimants. Often those so-called Tier 1 call takers were unable to help callers, leaving claimants to rely on a call back from a Tier 2 agent.
“We’re putting the people that have the knowledge on those phones so that you guys will not hear, ‘someone will call you back,’” Zumwalt said.
The change may cause wait times to the OESC telephone help line to increase though as workers handle more detailed issues with callers, she said.
“I need you guys to stand by me with this because I think these fixes are going to work, I really do,” Zumwalt said. “But nothing is perfect. But you will be able to get a hold of someone who will help you.”
Zumwalt declined to say how many people were affected by the clearing of the backlog.
“So as far as numbers, I am going to be really careful about quoting anything right now,” Zumwalt said. “Because I think people and claims are two different things because a person could have multiple claims. They could get denied. But we are getting that data together. The reason why I didn’t say it today is because I wanted to be 100% accurate that it is accurate.”
The agency did not provide a figure of how many PUA claims it has received or paid.
Zumwalt said the agency’s work is far from over.
“We’re not planting a flag in the sand and saying ‘we are done,’ OK?” Zumwalt said. “We’re not congratulating ourselves for this progress just yet. This is an update to show progress. This is not a final lap.”