OKLAHOMA CITY — For hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans, applying for unemployment benefits after losing their jobs due to COVID-19 has meant being trapped in a nightmare of crashing web pages, hours-long hold times and promised calls back that never arrive.

And that may not end soon. Oklahomans still are filing more initial and continuing claims than Oklahoma Employment Security Commission can process.

More than 258,000 Oklahomans filed initial and continuing unemployment claims the week of June 6-13. But the employment commission only processed approximately 177,000 claims during the comparable seven-day period, June 10-17.

“When I call, I’m on hold for hours. Nobody ever picks up,” certified nursing assistant Yolanda Kees said. “Rent, bills, car payment, I’m behind on everything.”

After making an initial unemployment claim, the claimant must continue to file each week they are without employment, but for many, multiple weeks have been filed without benefits received, causing several weeks of back pay to add up.

The employment commission says it has increased the number of claims it processes each week, but many still claimants have seen no sign of their benefits or the $600 additional per month promised by Congress

“Despite these promising numbers, I see the line in front of our Will Rogers Building every day,” said Shelley Zumwalt, interim OESC executive director. “We are working tirelessly to create solutions to help Oklahomans get the help they need.”

The agency has been struggling to catch up with the nearly 675,000 initial unemployment claims filed since March 24 when Gov. Stitt declared a state of emergency. On Thursday, U.S. Department of Labor reported 84,779 new claims were filed the week ending June 13.

“So many applications versus people to work them,” said Steven Harpe, director of Office of Management and Enterprise Services, summarizing one of employment commission’s greatest challenges.

Harpe’s office stepped in to help after former OESC executive director Robin Roberson sought help to deal with the deluge. Roberson resigned May 22, after less than four months on the job.

Zumwalt, who previously served as chief innovation officer for Harpe’s office, was named interim executive director five days later.

Harpe’s agency, which took over the employment commission’s technology systems the day Roberson resigned, built a new and more user friendly website that went on line on Thursday, because the original site, which used a mainframe from the 1970s, had a tendency to crash.

Although the increase in people answering phones allowed calls from claimants to be answered more quickly, only a fraction of the people answering calls were employment commission employees skilled enough to process claims.

As a result, throughout May when claimants called, many were told their claim issues were being escalated to tier two personnel who would call them back and offer assistance. Often, those calls were not returned for several months, if at all.

“I lost my job April 17, and I called every Monday and Friday,” former Midfirst Bank employee Billy Stephenson said. “They told me I needed to talk to a tier two person. Eight weeks later, I’m still waiting for the call.”

Zumwalt abandoned Roberson’s tier system, and instead adopted a new strategy to get claimants immediate help.

To achieve more resolutions on each claimant’s first call, Zumwalt placed more employees with substantial claim processing skills on call center shifts.

But Zumwalt said those calls tend to take longer, increasing the hold times for claimants.

In April, prior to the first-call resolution approach, $413,448,922 in claims was processed, but within the first half of June, approximately $429,000,000 was made in payouts.

Although a number of challenges facing the employment security commission have been addressed and more than $1 billion paid out in benefits, Harpe said as each problem is solved, a new one presents itself.

Because filing for unemployment includes multiple steps, claimants can run into problems at any point in the process, from their initial claim being rejected to the debit card containing their benefits never arriving.

“I’ve been waiting so long for my debit card,” Kees said. “ It’s frustrating knowing that you have money, because I’ve been approved, but I can’t do anything without the debit card.”

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Gaylord News is a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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