Oklahoma Senate looks into staffing shortages

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – State officials report Oklahoma has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country right now, but employers in our state are reporting staffing shortages. State lawmakers are trying to figure out why that is.

“This is a long term problem,” said Josie Philips of the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

Concerns were voiced at a State Senate interim study on Tuesday, examining roadblocks that are keeping Oklahomans from returning to work during the pandemic.

“The mismatch between labor supply and labor demand continues to be in place, and those differences are historic,” said Drew Dugan or the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.

Experts say problems like access to affordable child care, ability to work from home and fear of catching COVID in the workplace all play a role.

Study organizer Senator Carrie Hicks of Oklahoma city agrees it isn’t a quick fix.

“We removed those (federal unemployment) benefits in advance, and we really didn’t see the return to the workforce participation like we thought we would, and so now, I think it’s really forcing businesses and other individuals to really wrestle with the things that are keeping people from getting back in the work force,” said Hicks.

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

Economists from the Oklahoma Policy Institute say states that cut federal unemployment benefits early have only shown on average a 2 percent increase in workers returning compared to states that didn’t. They say another big issue in play is Oklahoma’s minimum wage. It hasn’t been raised in 12 years, that $7.25 an hour in 2009, now only $6 dollars when adjusted for inflation.

But not all lawmakers agree it’s a big issue.

“To throw more money at it, I’m not in favor of that. I believe we can fix the problem without throwing more money in that direction,” said Sen. Blake “Cowboy” Stephens of Talequah.

Employment officials point to Oklahoma’s 3.2 percent unemployment rate and 1.8 million workers, the largest workforce in state history. Some say a shift to the medical marijuana industry has left staffing shortages in other fields.

“As we get more data, we are going to find that there are more workers that have gone into that industry,” said Sen. James Leewright of Bristow.

“People are being a little more discretionary. Choosing not to work two or three gig jobs to piece together a living wage,” said Sen. Hicks.

The Oklahoma Chamber of Commerce estimates about 20,000 people in the metro are currently unemployed, and more than 60,000 jobs are currently available.

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