In Oklahoma and throughout the nation, coronavirus illuminated a deep divide in the rights and privileges of workers. As the need for social distancing drove people out of the workplace, it became painfully clear that working from home was not working for everyone.
As Free Press reported this past week, hundreds of Oklahomans woke up early or simply did not go to sleep so they could stand in line beginning at 2 a.m. at the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission (OESC). These were people who worked in the service sector, as laborers, as energy industry employees, in tightly packed offices or in public-facing positions, but were furloughed due to the coronavirus pandemic and were not receiving their unemployment benefits.
The sick part of this daily ritual is that these Oklahomans were not there to talk to a case worker; they were there to make an appointment to talk to a case worker. Their daily unemployment crisis does not resolve with their arrival at OESC in the dead of night. They were being told, in essence, to “take a number” while Oklahoma Highway Patrol flexed around them.
Fortunately, OESC is responding by holding events to address greater numbers of cases. Starting 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. July 1-2 and continuing July 8-9, OESC will hold events to address as many cases as possible at Reed Conference Center, 5800 Will Rogers Road in Midwest City. This is an overdue response to a humiliating situation. Clearly, OESC did not foresee the demand on its system even when every indicator was flashing red.
So far, Oklahoma is turning down far more people for unemployment insurance (UI) claims than it is approving. From March 1 to June 21, OESC received and processed 586,460 UI claims — about 1 in 4 Oklahomans of working age — and denied 350,041 claims. Given the scope of the pandemic and its effect on commerce in this state, the idea that nearly 60 percent of these claims were without merit stretches credulity to the breaking point.
Opinion by George D. Lang
Gov. Kevin Stitt believes the best solution is for everyone to return to work, that “we just have to learn how to live with it.” He and his Republican allies in Oklahoma’s Senate delegation, Senators James Lankford and Jim Inhofe, repeatedly side with corporations that demand a return to normal where there is no normal to be found.
Any solution that requires a full-scale return to the workplace is supremely out of step with reality. Stitt told reporters on June 30, the day Oklahoma reached an all-time high of 585 new daily coronavirus cases, that he would not follow Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s lead and mandate the public use of masks. If Stitt is unwilling to take that step, then Oklahoma’s workplaces will continue to suffer.
If Stitt were a smart pro-business leader, he would mandate masks and social distancing, allowing this preventative care to truly flatten the curve. Then, more of the hundreds of Oklahomans in those OESC lines could return to work. As it stands, Stitt’s refusal to issue a shelter-in-place order and his subsequent public mouth breathing set us back.
If Oklahoma companies wish to see a return to prosperity, their chief executives should flood the governor’s office with phone calls and emails and demand a public mandate for Oklahomans to wear masks until we achieve a real and lasting recovery from both COVID-19 and the recession it caused.
In addition, Stitt should instruct OESC interim executive director Shelley Zumwalt to adopt less stringent rules for approving UI claims. Denying nearly 60 percent of claims will not force Oklahomans back to work, but compassionate leadership could make a substantial difference.
In the meantime, the unemployment crisis demands a fresh perspective from those of us who are still employed. The aggrieved conservatives who refuse to wear masks must know that they are not only endangering their fellow Oklahomans; they are standing in the way of economic recovery.
Furthermore, those who work from home and complain about the Groundhog Day-like sameness of life in quarantine should think of the people who had no other option than to stand in darkness at 3 a.m. just to get an OESC appointment. Receiving grocery and takeout deliveries while sheltering in place is way easier than being forced by a furlough to make those deliveries.