Unemployment benefit payments top $950,000 in Sequoyah County

The number of people filing initial unemployment claims in Sequoyah County more than doubled between March and April, according to Oklahoma Unemployment Security Commission data.

The unemployment benefits paid to Sequoyah County residents in April jumped 285 percent from benefits paid in March.

In March, 441 people in Sequoyah County received $254,393 in unemployment compensation. In April, 1,046 Sequoyah County residents were drawing benefits. They received $979,440. More than 600 were added to the unemployment rolls in April as the COVID-19 pandemic and oil bust continued to cripple Oklahoma's economy.

Statewide, the Oklahoma Employment Securities Commission has received 239,354 unemployment benefit claims, and 179,985 were drawing benefits in April. The agency paid $144.6 million in benefits last month.

Almost $587 million in total benefits have been paid to claimants during the COVID-19 crisis. More than 410,000 Oklahomans had filed for unemployment relief by the week ending May 9.

The May unemployment numbers are expected to increase. An Oklahoma Employment Securities Commission report indicates 1,531 unemployment claims were filed in Sequoyah County in April, but just 1,046 were receiving benefits. Some of those claims were under review, and will likely start receiving benefits this month.

“The agency continues to resolve issues regarding claims with pending eligibility concerns,” OESC's Secretary for Digital Transformation David Ostrowe said. “While a myriad of issues can cause a stop to occur on a claim, OESC is working as fast as humanly possible to identify and resolve each and every one.”

For the first complete week in May, initial unemployment claims in Oklahoma totaled 32,794, a decrease of 61,090 from the adjusted record setting May 2 figures of 93,885.

In Sequoyah County, between 189 and 231 initial unemployment claims were filed during the week ending May 9, according to unofficial estimates by the Oklahoma Employment Securities Commission. It's a 55 percent decrease from the unofficial estimate of 423 to 517 initial claims for the week ending May 2.

Ostrowe said it's too early to tell if the May 9 filing decline is a trend, but called it hopeful.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt issued his safer at home order on April 1, which closed non-essential businesses in counties with COVID-19 cases. On April 22, the governor announced a three-phase plan to reopen businesses statewide. The plan's second phase began Friday.

Under phase 2, organized sports activities, bars, public funerals, weddings and children's nursery area's in places of worship can reopen as long as social distancing and sanitation protocols are followed.

Non-essential travel is also allowed.

Ostrowe said it's too early to determine if the May 9 numbers reflect a start of a trend as businesses reopen and jobs return across Oklahoma.

“We're hopeful the incredible numbers of job loss and business closures will begin reversing course now that Oklahoma is moving into phase 2 of Gov. Stitt's reopening of the state. Our neighbors are ready to get back to work and jumpstart the economy,” Ostrowe said.

With businesses reopening, employees who are called back to work, but refuse to do so could lose their unemployment benefits unless the employee falls within an identified risk group.

Employers may report workers refusing to return to their jobs by emailing returntowork@oesc.state.ok.us, calling 405-962-7524 or mailing the OESC at P.O. Box 52006, Oklahoma City, OK. 73152.

If those filing claims return to work full-time, they should keep their unemployment claim open, and not certify a weekly claim. If they return part-time, a claimant may continue to certify their weekly claim, and must report all gross earnings for the week to potentially receive a partial benefit.

Eligibility for continued benefits is determined by the circumstances of each individual claimant.

The OESC continues to identify fraudulent claims.

More than 11,000 claims have been identified as ficititous. The agency is seeking additional information from claimants and businesses on thousands of claims.

The state agency has added more security features to the online claim filing process. The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and the Office of the Attorney General have joined the fight to identify, arrest, charge and prosecute those filing the bogus claims.

Oklahomans who believe a bogus claim has been filed using their personal information should email the Oklahoma Employment Securities Commission at fraud@oesc.state.ok.us.

The rollout of Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Assistance will provide an additional 13 weeks of benefits to those who have exhausted their regular unemployment benefits.

Those claims may be backdated as far as March 29, the date the Oklahoma Employment Securities Commission signed its agreement with the U.S. Department of Labor. The agreement will continue through Dec. 26.

Recipients continue to receive the $600 in additional benefits from regular unemployment claims to Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claimants who don't qualify for regular unemployment benefits.

Sequoyah County Times

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