4 minute read

Something strange happened in Oklahoma’s state government this week. The Oklahoma Employment Security Commission (OESC), responding quickly to passage of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill passed by Congress, immediately began distributing federal employment benefits to Oklahomans hit hard by unemployment during the pandemic. 

“Thanks to the innovative and strategic solutions provided by our dedicated team at OESC, we expect to begin distributing payments from the new federal relief bill by the end of next week (Saturday, March 27),” said OESC Executive Director Shelley Zumwalt.

Opinion by George D. Lang

Too often, we bemoan people in government overpromising and under-delivering, so what happened over the weekend was cause for celebration as funds from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) and the $300 weekly benefit from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program made their way into Oklahomans’ bank accounts on schedule. 

Zumwalt announced her agency’s success Monday on Facebook. 

“I know many of you woke up to find that the first installment of the American rescue plan or AARP benefits were deposited in your accounts overnight,” Zumwalt said from her state Capitol office.

“I’m so thrilled to be able to let you know that for the first time, OESC was able to deliver and pay out these benefits without any delay or any gap, and benefit payments, all the credit for this goes to our many team members who literally stayed up overnight, many nights in a row to make sure that we could deliver these benefits on the very first day that we were able to pay them out.”

The difference is startling between OESC’s performance in delivering these funds to Oklahoma workers and the images of many of those same people lining up at 2 a.m. in June 2020 just to make an appointment with a caseworker. 

Reports on that bureaucratic disaster made national news. To this day, that footage of Oklahomans lined up outside the Will Rogers Memorial Office Building shows up as b-roll on cable news reports about the stimulus package and the need to expedite aid to people who lost their jobs during the pandemic. That brutalist, Eastern Bloc-style architecture of the Will Rogers is, unfortunately, pretty distinctive.

Zumwalt came on board as interim executive director after Robin Roberson resigned from the agency May 22, and at the time, it felt like she was being hired to walk into a woodchipper.

So many people were suffering at the time, and OESC did the right thing by setting up ad hoc processing operations like the July 1 event at Reed Convention Center in Midwest City, which saw more than 1,000 individuals on its first day. 

While Zumwalt spent the previous decade working as a budget analyst with the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, which made her a strong choice for the job, I think the entire state can be forgiven for experiencing shock and awe at Zumwalt’s success on this front. We are unaccustomed to seeing Gov. Kevin Stitt’s appointees get the job done without compromising their jobs in the service of partisan conservative ideals. 

This is the way it should be. Oklahomans should be able to depend on agency heads to do right by them and ensure that promises are kept. 

Like Joy Hofmeister at the Oklahoma State Department of Education, Zumwalt offers a masterclass on doing your job like your state depends on it. Oklahoma needs more leaders who go hard at the calamities that vex us all and not just at their political opponents.

Because Zumwalt and her team worked quickly to ensure that Oklahomans received their benefits, people can pay their bills and feed their families. If we can run Oklahoma like this more often, we could see an end to the gamesmanship of current Oklahoma government and a new era when it is worth staying up all night to do the right thing. Maybe Zumwalt is the real “Oklahoma standard.”

Last Updated March 24, 2021, 12:29 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor