First-time unemployment insurance claims in Oklahoma have surged this week as fallout from cratering energy prices and the COVID-19 crisis take hold here, but state officials say they have over $1 billion saved for just this sort of emergency.
Initial unemployment claims in the state for the first three days of this week alone have more than tripled the number filed all of last week, an official said.
The state received 1,836 claims for the entire week ending March 14. Claims so far this week have increased every day. On Monday, 846 claims were filed; 1,994 claims were filed Tuesday; and 3,146 were filed Wednesday, according to data provided by Robin Roberson, Oklahoma Employment Security Commission Executive Director.
The jump comes as the commission on Monday banned the public from all of its 28 workforce offices due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Roberson said the public ban was needed as the agency is not equipped to properly sanitize the workstations in order to keep customers and employees safe.
“It is also pertinent that our staff is healthy and well in order to process the plethora of claims we are beginning to see from the energy crisis/COVID-19 crisis,” Roberson said in emailed comments.
Some staff in the 471-person agency have been shifted to focus on helping process the expected increase in claims, Roberson said.
The agency already required claims to be filed online at ok.gov/oesc or unemployment.state.ok.us, so the state is “well-positioned for claimants to begin the process,” Roberson said. Staff will be available both online and via phone at 800-555-1554 to assist customers. However, they warn that wait times could be two hours, she said.
The state unemployment rate in January, the most recent figures available, was 3.3%, representing 60,596 unemployed job seekers.
Rates throughout 2019 ranged from 3.2% to 3.4%, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Nationwide, the seasonally-adjusted insured unemployment rate was 3.6%, records show.
The Oklahoma Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, meanwhile, has more than $1 billion available to pay claims, according to figures provided by Roberson.
For perspective, the state paid out more than $508 million during the worst year of 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.
As for the commission’s staff, Roberson said they were faring “very well,” adding: “Our team is dedicated to assisting Oklahomans (employers and employees) as quickly and effectively as possible during this time.”
Roberson declined to estimate how long it might take to receive unemployment insurance benefits during the dual crisis period.
Typically, the wait time from the start of the process to when the applicant receives benefits is 12 to 14 days after they are approved.
The approval letter could come up to 20 days after applying.
On Thursday, Gov. Kevin Stitt signed an order that temporarily suspended the one-week waiting period before unemployment benefits can be paid.
Monetary entitlement is based on wages earned during the base period, which is typically the first four of the last five completed calendar quarters.
Payments are issued to either debit cards or via direct deposit to a bank.
Individuals filing for unemployment benefits must provide identification documents to the commission within seven days of filing the claim. They can be faxed to 405-962-7524 or copies mailed to OESC, P.O. Box 52006, Oklahoma City, OK 73152-2006.
Weekly benefit amounts can range from $16 per week to $539 per week. The maximum benefit amount can be from $416 to $11,700. The amounts are based on earnings in taxable employment during the base period. The average number of weeks payable is approximately 20.5.
Roberson said employees who are not formally laid off but have their hours reduced to zero can still apply for benefits.
Full-time employees whose hours are reduced to less than 32 hours are considered part-time and eligible to file for benefits under certain conditions.