Long lines at unemployment offices around the state and long hold times to speak to claims representatives on the phone have been the norm since the pandemic started. Many Oklahoma citizens are frustrated that they have not received their unemployment, have had their claims rejected, or simply could not obtain an answer.
What has happened at the Oklahoma State Employment Commission is actually a series of unfortunate events. A significant portion of the problems is attributed to the agency operating on 40-year-old mainframe computers, utilizing software that came out when “The Andy Griffith Show” debuted.
Couple that with the OESC Executive Director, Robin Roberson, who had only been on the job 16 weeks (and who resigned in May, amid controversy and health issues), an unprecedented number of claims, (March 1 to June 1, The Oklahoma State Employment Commission processed 586,460 unemployment claims), and cyberattacks (resulting in fraudulent claims) Add to that the burden of processing PUA claims (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance). This federal program temporarily expands unemployment insurance to self-employed workers, freelancers, independent contractors, and part-time workers impacted by the pandemic.
Following the resignation of Robin Roberson, the Oklahoma State Employment Commission named Shelley Zumwalt, Public Affairs Divison Director at Office of Management and Enterprise Services (OMES), as the interim Executive Director of the OESC. The OSEC also voted to put the OESC under the auspices of the OMES.
Zumwalt has promised, as stated in television interviews, to correct the problems and expedite claims. She alluded to the antiquated hardware and software and said that many people did not understand that hiring new claims reps was not as simple as hiring someone off the street.
She said the job is specialized and the training curriculum is mandated by the Department of Labor. The training takes 8 weeks to complete. She also said that many applicants were not computer savvy and this was causing problems as well. The state has already hired nearly 200 call center employees to handle the massive volume of calls.
The OESC has implemented new cloud-based software to work “on top” of the existing COBOL software. This has allowed the state to implement a new web portal, which provides an easier user interface and increased security.
The “Sapulpa Times” interviewed State Senator James Leewright for his analysis of the situation. When asked why the OESC was running such old hardware and software, he said that several years ago, the state legislature appropriated approximately $39 million as part of a strategy to upgrade the OESC system, to be funded by specific fees. He said that so far, $18 million have been collected.
Senator Leewright addressed the fraudulent claims issue: “Every state is having widespread fraud. It is international rings and domestic.”
Leewright said that the pandemic relief legislation was implemented, then the rules were established. “It wasn’t like the day the President signed the legislation that it could go right into effect. The details had to be worked out after that.”
Senator Leewright stated that going into this pandemic, Oklahoma was the fifth most solvent unemployment insurance fund in the nation. “But we are depleting that very rapidly.”
The “Sapulpa Times” asked Senator Leewright to explain the function of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services. “It was set up ten or eleven years ago to consolidate a lot of redundancies in government.”
When asked why the OESC was now under the purview of the OMES, Leewright answered: “My understanding is that OMES is not taking over the OESC. What they are doing is taking over the IT part.”
Leewright said the agency is doing its utmost to tackle the problem. “There’s a lot of hardworking people at OESC. These agents, I promise you, I have seen it myself. Because as Chair of Business, Commerce, and Tourism, I help oversee that. I help oversee it, in the sense of legislation, and so forth. I have been pretty involved with [the] unemployment issue since this broke out. I am spending six or seven hours a day with agency and constituents, trying to solve their problems.”