OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – As a global pandemic sent the Oklahoma economy into a tailspin, the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission worked to try and keep up with a record number of unemployment claims.
Nearly three months after COVID-19 spread to Oklahoma, officials with the agency say they are making several changes in order tackle a backlog of unemployment claims.
Although only being on the job for three days, Interim Executive Director of OESC Shelley Zumwalt says she is making big changes to speed up the process of filing for unemployment.
Since the end of last week, Zumwalt says her agency has already processed 29% of the backlogged cases for traditional unemployment and PUA benefits.
Zumwalt says a lot of the issues surrounded how applicants were answering confusing questions while applying for benefits.
“We did this by querying the data of the claims backlog and seeing what percentage of the applicants were getting hung up on certain questions like, ‘Are you able and available for work?’ Which during a pandemic means something different than it does during normal times.,” Zumwalt said.
She says the agency then analyzed the data and “removed flags in the system that were not pertinent to determining eligibility.” At that point, the agency was able to backdate the claims and pay for the time the applicant was out of work.
Zumwalt says the money for those claims is expected to be paid either Monday or Tuesday.
“This means that for the first time in four, six, maybe eight weeks, some people will have the ability to file for multiple back weeks of pay that they previously had not been able to file for,” she said.
Zumwalt says she heard from one applicant who became confused because of the way some of the questions were worded.
“I know these questions have tripped up countless other people as they’ve gone through this process, and that’s unacceptable and we are fixing that,” she said.
Beginning on Tuesday, the OESC will deploy new questions for the PUA application. Zumwalt says they should be easier to navigate and will give users feedback on what a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer means on the question.
Zumwalt says that another issue is the loading time for some applications, so they are adding an indicator to alert users that the application is loading and to not close out their window.
Officials say they are moving several ‘Tier 2’ agents to Tier 1 in order to resolve claims immediately. As a result, call times may increase but many applicants will no longer have to wait for a call back.
“We are not planting a flag in the sand and saying we’re done, OK? We’re not congratulating ourselves for this progress just yet. This is an update to show progress. This is not a final lap,” she said.
In fact, officials said that without bold action, it would have taken until 2022 to tackle the backlog of claims.
The agency says the majority of claims should be completed by next Monday.