OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – A measure that would change the state’s unemployment system is one step closer to becoming law.
House Bill 1933 indexes Oklahoma’s unemployment benefits, which would end unemployment tax increases on Oklahoma businesses.
Organizers say the system would adjust how the state pays unemployment compensation to a tiered system based on the number of weekly claims.
They say as a result, individuals would qualify for more weeks of benefits when the economy is performing poorly, and less weeks of benefits when the economy is strong.
“The intent of the bill is to allow the Unemployment Insurance Fund to become better funded when the economy is good,” said the bill’s author, Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond. “By shortening the amount of time that a person can receive their UI benefit when there are a lot of jobs available, the fund will be better funded for when the economy is bad.
“This legislation strengthens Oklahoma’s unemployment system, making it healthier. It ensures our rates remain reasonable and that when benefits are needed, they are there. It also helps incentivize Oklahomans to return to the work force, filling the large number of job openings that currently are available.”
In short, the bill would also shorten eligibility from 26 weeks down to just weeks.
Supporters say the move would stabilize the unemployment insurance fund and would get people back to work twice as fast while lowering tax rates.
“Lower unemployment taxes allow employers to hire more people and increase wages, a critical component to help address the state’s dire workforce shortage,” Sen. Zack Taylor, R-Seminole, said. “Indexing benefits would lower UI tax rates from $2.80 to $1.90 per $1,000 of wages in just five years while increasing Oklahoma’s UI fund by $324 million in just three years. That’s smart business sense I believe all Oklahomans should be able to get behind.”
In interviews with KFOR Wednesday, opponents of the bill said the measures feel punitive, and would mean less time for Oklahomans to find another job before benefits run out.
“It seems like retaliation for people who really relied on this during the pandemic,” said Rep. Mickey Dollens, D-Oklahoma City. “If there’s not widespread employment claims across the state, then they are taking away 10 weeks of opportunity for people to seek further employment just based off the fact that there’s not a lot of claims.”
“Did they forget about health insurance? And what about the employer for the minimum wage job?,” he added.
“As a tenured professor, my university closed and I went on unemployment,” added Don Noble-Skinner, citing a need for more support for Oklahoma workers.
The former college professor told KFOR he was laid off from his job in higher education and had to file for unemployment before landing a new job as a high school teacher.
“There was certainly pressure to get back to a full time job,” he said, while adding he has found a supportive network in secondary education. “The benefits were nowhere close to what we needed to get the bills paid.”
“In spite of my qualifications, I still haven’t gotten another higher education position. We need to support workers, not cut their support,” he added.
They say projections show program dependency could drop by 35 percent in four years, moving an enrollee’s average time on unemployment from 13.4 weeks to 8.7 weeks.
“They expect for someone who’s been in the industry for 15 years who maybe has been laid off to just completely uproot and go find a new sector. That requires time [and new training],” added Dollens.
“Being over-qualified can be as much of a challenge as being under-qualified when it comes to finding another job,” Skinner-Noble added. “Experience means you should earn a higher salary, which isn’t always an option for the employer.”
In a statement to KFOR, Shelley Zumwalt, Executive Director Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, said the agency will offer a response once the bill passes the governor’s desk.
“The governor has yet to act on HB 1933. OESC will be prepared to comment with a more detailed statement once he has taken action.”Shelley Zumwalt, Executive Director Oklahoma Employment Security Commission
“We need to do what we can to make sure it’s easier for people to get good paying jobs,” said Skinner-Noble.
HB 1933 has advanced to the governor’s desk. If it is signed, it will go into effect next year.