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County Unemployment Rate Jumps To 13.5 Percent In April

 

Pottawatomie County's unemployment rate jumped from 3.1% in March to 13.5% in April, according to April's Oklahoma Unemployment Report.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, unemployment has been rising nationwide. The Oklahoma Employment Security Commission (OESC) handles Oklahoma's unemployment insurance system.

According to a June 4 press release, more than 500,000 Oklahomans have filed unemployment claims. Callers to the agency can expect longer than usual wait times, according to the same release.

The Countywide & Sun spoke to several individuals in May who reported experiencing fraudulent unemployment claims, either against their business or their own social security number. These individuals each individually said they reported their fraudulent claims to the OESC and the Attorney General, and had not gotten any response back.

Interim Executive Director of the OESC Shelly Zumwalt said the agency was working diligently to resolve backlogged claims. She said although 71% of the backlog that existed when she arrived at the agency has been processed, aging technology and continued increases in the number of unemployment claims are complicating the process.

"With 40 year old technology, you just never know," Zumwalt said.

Zumwalt said about 500,000 claims had been processed, and about 200,000 claims have been denied. She said of those denied claims, about half have been denied because of fraud.

"I suspect in the next couple of weeks, that number will rise pretty dramatically," Zumwalt said of claims determined to be fraudulent.

Business owners who spoke to The Countywide & Sun about experiencing fraudulent claims said they were frustrated, and concerned that their unemployment insurance rates would rise. However, according to a March 26 order signed by former OESC Executive Direcor Robin Roberson, benefit wage charges for employers related to COVID-19 have been waived. Zumwalt confirmed that the order was still in effect, and said employers should not see an increase in their rates due to fraudulent unemployment claims.

"I can't imagine a scenario where we would reinstate those rates," Zumwalt said.

Local business operators say they hope the rates will not increase, especially those dealing with fraudulent claims against their establishment.

Cindy Stiles, bookkeeper of Shawnee Paint, said their business had experienced three separate fraudulent claims.

"We don't know any of these people. They never even applied for a job here," Stiles said.

Stiles protested each of the claims on the same day she received them. She said she was concerned that unemployment funds may be getting paid out to fraudulent claimants, and her business could see an increase in rates. Stiles said in the past, protests were usually handled quickly, but that she hadn't heard anything back from the agency regarding her most recent protests.

Mayoral candidate and owner of Uncommon Threads Teresa Cody said her business had experienced a fraudulent claim for unemployment as well.

"Never heard of her in my life. I don't even know where she lives," Cody said.

She said she had also reported her fraudulent claim to the state, and not gotten a response.

Fraudulent unemployment claims can have a negative impact on individuals, too. Casey Bell, president of BancFirst in Shawnee, said he received notice that his Social Security number had been used to file an unemployment claim. Bell said he had reported the fraudulent claim, and not heard back from the OESC. He said even though he was fortunate enough to remain employed for now, he was concerned about his ability to file for unemployment if the need ever did arise.

Zumwalt said cases like this are not unheard of.

"That does happen, and we've had it happen," Zumwalt said.

Fortunately, individuals who find themselves in a similar situation are still able to file for unemployment benefits, she said. She said even if your Social Security number has been used to file a fraudulent claim, you could still start and submit an application for unemployment benefits, although there may be extra identification requirements for such cases.

Zumwalt said although unemployment insurance is stigmatized in Oklahoma, she hopes the situation the state is in will help reduce the stigma around collecting benefits.

"I think asking for help in general in Oklahoma is hard," Zumwalt said. Oklahomans consider themselves to be hard working and independent, which may cause some to hesitate before attempting to file unemployment claims.

"We're independent people, and especially in rural areas, I think the stigma is definitely alive and well," Zumwalt said.

Zumwalt said it was important to keep in mind that payments from unemployment insurance were not a government handout. She said employers made the funds available, and workers are legally entitled to those funds when they lose a job through no fault of their own.

"I am 110% committed to fixing this problem, and getting people the benefits they're entitled to," Zumwalt said.

She said employees across multiple state agencies have been working nights and weekends attempting to fix the issues at OESC.

Employers and individuals are encouraged to continue reporting fraudulent claims to the OESC. Jeff Fryer, the agency's public information officer, said in an email that the claims reporting processes was automated, and claims identified as potentially fraudulent were flagged and stopped.

Zumwalt said the agency has ways to recover funds paid out to fraudsters, even if the claim is paid before the fraud is identified. She said the agency's investigative unit would pursue such cases when they were discovered.

"They have clawed back funds before, and I imagine that process will become more robust," Zumwalt said.

 

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