7 minute read

MIDWEST CITY — Wednesday over 1,000 came to the Reed Convention Center in hopes of moving their unemployment insurance cases along.

The line wrapping around the Will Rogers Building on the Capitol campus has been dramatic.

But, the large room full of people waiting plus the line snaking down the sidewalk showed the scale of the employment crisis that has hit the state because of the pandemic.

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A part of a long line that snaked around one side and the back of the convention center on the first day there. (BRETT DICKERSON/Okla City Free Press)

The Oklahoma Employment Security Commission (OESC) now led by Shelley Zumwalt, interim executive director, temporarily shifted operations from their offices in the Will Rogers Building at the Capitol to the Reed Convention Center in Midwest City Wednesday.

The effort, continuing Thursday and in days to come (see info below), is to meet the growing demand from those unemployed during the ongoing crisis of the pandemic.

New capacity

The offices at the Will Rogers building were designed for an earlier time of the normal flow of unemployment claims. The most the OESC could take on safely in the building each day was 170.

On Wednesday, the first day, they had plans to see 500 face-to-face and then give out 500 more tickets that would get them in first the next day. News reports at the end of the day said that they were able to process 510.

No call back

Free Press talked with Sonora Kennedy as she waited with a large meeting room filled with people who had been distanced six feet apart.

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Sonora Kennedy started the day by getting to the Reed Convention Center at 5 a.m. By 9 a.m. she made it inside to the waiting room. By 3 p.m. she finally saw a staff person and is on the way to resolution of the problems holding up her payments. (BRETT DICKERSON/Okla City Free Press)

She is one of the hundreds who has seen the system simply fall silent once she started through it. She had been waiting since 5 a.m. that morning and it was around 9 a.m. when we talked with her.

The problems she has had with the system were “not being able to actually file not getting any callbacks to talk to anyone for hours.”

It was a familiar story we have heard many times from those waiting in line.

We encouraged her to call back at the end of the day and tell us how it went. She left a message later that evening that she had finally been called to a table around 3 p.m. and was finished by 3:15.

When we followed up she said that she feels like she has made progress with the system, which will be a relief. She has been trying to get into the unemployment system since April.

Challenges

Zumwalt, OESC executive director, took a few minutes out of the rush of directing OESC staff to talk with Free Press.

On the whole, she felt like things were “going pretty good.”

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Shelley Zumwalt (facing camera), interim executive director for OESC, holds a quick huddle with her leaders in charge of operations Wednesday, the first day in the convention center that allowed them much more capacity. (BRETT DICKERSON/Okla City Free Press)

We asked what some of the biggest challenges were.

“We saw that there’s a big need in the Vietnamese community,” Zumwalt said. “We have three translators. And right now we’re trying to get quite a few more. We’re reaching out to the Vietnamese community and making sure that we’re making those connections. So we can help this population, those claims usually take a little bit longer.”

A second challenge was with those who are unfamiliar with using a computer.

“We’re noticing we’ve got a lot of people without very advanced computer skills,” she said. “And so we’re seeing a lot of that those are difficult problems to solve for the interpreter when … your application is online, and computer skills aren’t really strong, that can be a really big issue.”

She said that they have a resource center in the building where once clients meet with a staff member they can then go to the computers and complete their process. Sometimes it’s just a matter of having a human answer questions and tell the individual what to do next.

Backlog?

Almost every person Free Press interviewed waiting in any of the lines is that the process stalled for them. They did everything they could online, then called, and then were never called back after being told to wait for a callback.

The word “backlog” is used often to refer to the system bogging down. But Zumwalt took issue with that characterization when we used it in a question.

“We have between 3,500 and 5,000 claims that are pending right now. That is actually a really healthy amount,” said Zumwalt.

She said that there are many legitimate reasons for claims to stop in the process such as employers wanting to contest a claim and the OESC needing to confirm information with other state agencies.

Also, one of the early hurdles for OESC was getting on a footing that would allow their systems to stand up to the large, automated fraud schemes that were using personal information purchased from data stolen in breaches of big companies.

In those cases the agency needs to slow down.

“So if we had zero claims in there, that would not be success,” insisted Zumwalt. “That means we’re not catching anything.”

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An elderly woman waiting in the long line required care from Midwest City Fire Department firefighters. (BRETT DICKERSON/Okla City Free Press)

Weekly thing?

We asked if being in a convention center, then, is just going to be a weekly thing.

She said that they are expanding their capacity right now as they work on refining their system and the aging infrastructure that has so many limitations.

The weekly attestation that claimants have to do to keep receiving benefits is a bottleneck right now and is getting considerable attention. That has to be done in person to reduce the possibility of fraud.

OESC is working on a system that will allow attestation to be done on a computer in a secure way that would drastically reduce the number of people needing to see someone.

But, they aren’t there yet.

“I think if we have a large number of people that are continually not able to file, then we are going to see this process, you know, over and over again,” Zumwalt said. So, that’s my goal is to make sure we can get people help today. If they’ve never filed, get them filed, get them their back weeks filled out.”

Their staff are now assessing who would need to keep coming back for in-person assistance after this initial rush of people who need help and will be assessing what their need is in the future.

Upcoming events

OESC staff released information on upcoming convention center events that will give more access to the system. The following is information provided by OESC PR staff.

Upcoming events at the Reed Conference Center (located at 5800 Will Rogers Road in Midwest City) include:

  • Thursday, July 2 – FULL (passes for next week’s events will be handed out throughout the day)
  • Friday, July 3 – No event: state offices are closed for the holiday weekend 
  • Monday, July 6 – Capacity of 500 (passes for future events will be handed out throughout the day)
  • Tuesday, July 7 – Capacity of 500 (passes for future events will be handed out throughout the day)
  • Wednesday, July 8 – Capacity of 500 (passes for future events will be handed out throughout the day)
  • Thursday, July 9 – Capacity of 500

All events will run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Details for additional claim processing events in Tulsa will be announced next week. 


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