More than 360,000 Oklahomans filed first time unemployment claims in March and April. About half of them have not received assistance. Many of them have been waiting for weeks. Not only are they waiting for the money, they’re waiting for phone calls. And for a debit card that will let them access their money when it is finally approved.
Meanwhile, eviction notices, halted in some states because of the joblessness, have resumed in Oklahoma.
There are a lot of reasons being offered for why 180,000 Oklahomans have been unable to get the help they need, but don’t blame the governor. Three weeks after Go. Kevin Stitt addressed filing problems with “Give me another week and I’m going to have this thing wrapped up,” he’d changed his tune.
“The governor, technically, has no authority to run that state agency,” he said. “This is something the Legislature needs to fix.”
Here are just a few of the reasons so many Oklahomans feel helpless:
The Oklahoma Employment Security Commission’s 30-year-old computer system is being updated in the middle of a pandemic. The old computer system and the new are unable to communicate with each other. Bad luck for those who filed on the old system.
The Office of Management and Enterprise Systems [OMES] helped the OESC build a website and contract hundreds of new workers to answer phones. That’s the good news. Apparently, those jobs weren’t contracted to out-of-work Oklahomans, but to people working from home all across the U.S.
Who’s profiting from this decision?
The job of the new Level 1 employees is to take calls and transfer information to Level 2 employees. The Level 1 person gives an Incident Number to the caller, and the caller waits for a call back.
One of the unemployed people I talked to said she called back six times over a period of weeks, and she ended up with four different incident numbers.
“If you call back, even with the original number,” she said, “you go to the back of the line.”
OESC’s executive director, Robin Roberson, told filers, “Don’t call back and get a new number. It throws a glitch in the system.”
There seem to be a lot of glitches.
A single wrong answer can wipe out a filer’s claim.
Some of the questions are hard to understand, and one person I talked to wondered if that was on purpose.
“Some are tricky questions,” she said.
It’s definitely on purpose that someone or some organization is making money off the Way to Go debit cards. There is a fee collected every time you check your balance on the card.
The real glitch in the system might be corruption. Where have all the dollars gone?
Another glitch is the GOPs desire to give back federal money. They didn’t take the Medicaid expansion. And they are afraid that extra $600 a week in federal unemployment assistance will make people hesitant to go back to work.
No, Gov. Stitt, it’s the pandemic that makes people afraid to go back to work.
It’s easy to feel helpless, especially after spending hours waiting on the phone. Especially if you had a job two months ago, and health insurance, and a place to live and all that is being taken away from you.
Don’t give up yet. Call your legislators. Ask them to help you navigate the system.
If your legislator says it’s not his job, remind him that you vote for the helpers.
Editor’s Note: Since this essay was written, Roberson resigned under pressure and information technology services were turned over to OMES. Good news? It remains to be seen whether it was anything more than a PR gambit aimed at creating the impression the problems are being fixed. Our bet: it’s simply a rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic.