First-time unemployment claims in Oklahoma jumped over 800% to record levels last week, direct evidence of the toll business closures and other restrictions have taken on the economy and workers as officials try to minimize the spread of the coronavirus.
Out-of-work Oklahomans filed more first-time jobless claims last week than were filed in the prior 10 weeks combined.
The dire numbers, released Thursday, show 17,720 initial claims filed last week in Oklahoma, 15,884 more than were filed the prior week, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Between the weeks ending Jan. 11 and March 14, prior to the work and travel restrictions being imposed, there were a total of 17,344 first-time jobless claims filed in the state.
The prior weekly record in Oklahoma was 9,778 initial claims in January 1991.
“We’re likely to see a significant jump in the number of continued claims beginning with next week’s report,” said Oklahoma Employment Security Commission Executive Director Robin Roberson. “We’ve temporarily waived the requirement that recipients of unemployment benefits demonstrate they are actively seeking employment. The labor market is too unsettled during this crisis to place both job seekers and employers at risk with the work search requirement.”
There are two components to the unemployment insurance claims data. The first component, initial claims, measures how many job seekers are filing an unemployment insurance claim for the first time. The second component, continued claims, indicates the number of job seekers who continue to receive the unemployment insurance benefit after their initial claim.
Nationwide, 3.2 million initial claims were filed during the same one-week period ending March 21, an increase of 3 million from the previous week.
State and local leaders have imposed a series of measures over the past month to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Those measures have included forcing nonessential businesses to close in counties and cities where the virus has been confirmed.
Bars, gyms, theaters, museums, schools, restaurants and many other businesses have been forced to close or dramatically scale back operations as measures to impose social distancing guidelines have tightened.
That has included the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, which administers the unemployment insurance program.
Beginning March 16, the agency closed its offices to the public. Claim filers are encouraged to use the internet to file claims, ok.gov/oesc/Claimants.
Oklahoma officials have counted 248 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Thursday, a number that has increased nearly each day since the first case was confirmed March 6, just 20 days ago.
Roberson said last week that the state’s unemployment trust fund is one of the “most solvent” in the nation, with over $1 billion available to pay claims.
For perspective, the state paid out more than $508 million during the worst year during the Great Recession a decade ago, according to figures from Roberson.
“Our current balance could cover two years like this, even without additional employer taxes or even our substantial interest earnings,” Roberson said in written comments.
The most recent unemployment rates, from January, will almost certainly seem a dream when updated unemployment numbers are released in coming weeks. The state unemployment rate in January was 3.3%, representing 60,596 unemployed.
Rates throughout 2019 ranged from 3.2% to 3.4%, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In Tulsa County, the January unemployment rate was 3.1%, according to figures released Friday. Latimer County in southeast Oklahoma had the highest county-level unemployment rate at 7.3%.
The lowest unemployment rate in January was in Cimarron County, located in the state’s Panhandle.
In its report Thursday, the Labor Department said 3.283 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, up from 282,000 during the previous week. Yet many people who have lost jobs in recent weeks have been unable to file for unemployment aid because state websites and phone systems have been overwhelmed by a crush of applicants and have frozen up.
That logjam suggests that Thursday’s report actually understates the magnitude of job cuts last week. So does the fact that workers who are not on company payrolls — gig workers, freelancers, the self-employed — aren’t currently eligible for unemployment benefits even though in many cases they’re no longer able to earn money.
With layoffs surging, a significant expansion of unemployment benefits for the millions who will lose jobs as a result of the coronavirus outbreak was included in an economic relief bill nearing final approval in Congress. One provision in the bill would provide an extra $600 a week on top of the unemployment aid that states provide. Another would extend 13 additional weeks of benefits beyond the six months of jobless aid that most states offer.
Q&A: Filing unemployment claims amid virus-related job losses
The Associated Press contributed to this story.