Oklahoma Covid-19 Stockpile

Oklahoma Employment Security Commission Executive Director Robin Roberson speaks at a press conference in Oklahoma City on April 7. Roberson said the OESC is training more service agents to reduce call center wait times for people making unemployment claims due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman

The worst time to implement a major change is when you have no choice but to do it.

The Oklahoma Employment Security Commission has done an impressive job in recent weeks of dealing with an overwhelming number of jobless claims in the state. The agency has made the best of antiquated technology on the fly and used a good deal of ingenuity in the process

Driven by the COVID-19 shutdown and the related collapse of the state’s petroleum industry, Oklahomans have lost their jobs at a record rate in recent weeks.

As the OESC processed more than 160,000 new jobless claims since April 1, the state’s unemployment rate has soared. Nationally, economists predict that the jobless rate could rise to levels not seen since the Great Depression, and with the added impact of an oil bust, Oklahoma’s situation could be even worse.

The initial surge in COVID-19 unemployment swamped the OESC, which was more accustomed to handling fewer than 2,000 new claims a week.

But, under the can-do leadership of Executive Director Robin Roberson, the agency is working itself out of the hole, reassigning workers and streamlining processes to make sure jobless Oklahomans get their claims handled as quickly as is possible within the law.

Roberson’s efforts are all the more remarkable given that she was simultaneously dealing with a cancer diagnosis.

Roberson would be the first to recognize that none of what the OESC has accomplished would have been possible without a lot of hard work by dedicated state employees. The commission has long been one of those neglected state bureaucracies, low on the Legislature’s priority list, which, frankly, left it ill-prepared to deal with a crisis.

Hard times reveal a lot of things in people. In the case of Roberson and the OESC, it revealed leadership and a resilient staff that was determined to serve Oklahomans in need. In a trying time, they deserve the state’s patience, and better treatment when they ask for modernization funding in the future.

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