After nearly five months, Amanda Flores is tired of waiting.
The Oklahoma City resident quit her job at Crest in July to take care of an ailing relative who she didn’t want to move into a nursing home amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flores hoped she would qualify for a “good cause” exemption that would allow her to collect unemployment benefits while she looked for a new job with more flexible hours.
But since she applied for unemployment later that month, all she has done is wait.
She’s waited while her claim initially went into adjunction – a process where the state confirms that the claim is justified. She waited when she discovered an error that forced her to reapply in October. And she’s waited while her claim has been put into adjudication.
“I have literally lost hope,” she said. “I really don’t know what to do and they’ve made it very clear that there’s nothing I can do. And we are talking about something I applied for in July.”
It doesn’t take long to find others with similar stories.
Oklahoma made national headlines this summer when thousands of Oklahomans camped out in the early morning hours at mega-processing events in Oklahoma City and Tulsa in hopes of getting their unemployment questions or problems fixed.
Although the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission said it has added quick fixes to upgrade its computer systems, add staff and push through claims faster than before, problems still linger.
On a near-daily basis, dozens offer up comments or questions on one of at least three Facebook groups — each with over a thousand members — devoted to helping Oklahomans with their unemployment issues. Regularly one of the top complaints is the weeks, or even months, that some wait for benefits.
Data also shows that issues, particularly the state’s ability to quickly process claims that go through arbitration, persist and that Oklahoma’s wait times lag behind much of the country.
A PEW Charitable Trusts study released earlier this month found that every state, with the exception of North Dakota, Rhode Island and Wyoming, failed to meet a federal standard that benefits be delivered to 87% of applicants within three weeks.
Oklahoma, where 51.7% of claims arrived within three weeks, ranked the 12th slowest in the country as of Oct. 30. The most-up-to-date federal statistics show that number has risen to 59.2%, as of Nov. 30. But that is still far from the state’s history of processing well over 85% of claims within that time frame before the pandemic.
Why the Slow Down?
When asked why so many Oklahomans are waiting so long for their benefits— or at least to find out whether they qualify — the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission time and time again has pointed to its outdated infrastructure.
The agency relies on a mainframe run by a 60-year-old programming language called COBOL that is difficult to automate, runs slowly and requires maintenance and updates from a shrinking pool of workers with expertise on the platform.
Shelley Zumwalt, who is the executive director of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, said this is particularly problematic when processing claims adjudicated.
These are applications that have been protested by the applicants’ former employer or have been flagged for another reason.
The state’s unemployment benefits are funded by employers and the federal government. Employers pay into a trust fund depending on how long they’ve been in business and how many claims they’ve paid in the past. The amount of unemployment tax paid by employers is based on the condition of the state’s Unemployment Insurance trust fund. Because of increased claims in 2020, the state will raise the employer contribution rates in 2021.
Zumwalt said it’s difficult to track exactly how long the typical unemployment benefits will be paid out since the timeliness depends largely on whether it goes to arbitration or not. The state also reinstated a one-week waiting period in October before applicants can reply, which Zumwalt said makes it hard to compare numbers over time.
But she acknowledged that unemployment situations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic created issues and case backlogs unlike the agency has faced.
“We’ve paid out more since March this year than the entire proceeding decade,” she said. “We hit $3.7 billion (this month) and there are claims behind every dollar.”
As a result, Zumwalt said the agency is regularly able to pay out benefits within the three-week federal standard if it is a straight-forward application. But if it does go to adjudication, she said it can take longer.
“So it’s unrealistic to meet the same criteria during a pandemic that was established before the pandemic,” she said. “But do we try to do that, absolutely.”
In addition to the technology limitations, Zumwalt said another factor holding the agency back is the lack of available and experienced adjudicators who process the applications and help determine ultimately if someone is eligible.
Although the agency increased its staffing and have trained people who previously were in other positions, she said this is the type of job that often requires skilled and experienced workers. Unfortunately, similar to programmers with COBOL experience, these workers are in limited supply and in high demand across the country.
“These are people who really mastered processing an unemployment claim,” Zumwalt said. “They have been at the agency for at least a decade and they are the seasoned professionals who know every single thing about a claim and really make knowledgeable decisions.”
Zumwalt said adding workers could help. Even if the Legislature approved extra money to staff up, she said the state likely still might not be able to recruit the right people for the job.
“Everyone who retired from the agency as an adjudicator is now working for us part-time and it’s like finding a Tesla mechanic — I think there are three in the state — and it doesn’t matter how much money I have, you can’t get them,” she said.
What is Being Done?
The good news is that the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission promises that help is on the way.
Zumwalt said a number of technical and procedural changes over the past several months have allowed the agency to quicken its pace.
She said that progress is expected to continue with regular tweaks in the coming weeks. She said the agency is also looking to request legislative changes this upcoming session that would accelerate things.
This includes modernizing state statutes to allow the state to email, rather than physically mail, information to applicants or their former employers.
But the biggest change is still a ways out – but not as long as previously thought.
Even before the pandemic exposed the agency’s weak points, state officials were eyeing a five-year, $39 million project that would overhaul and modernize the employment agency’s mainframe. This is expected to dramatically increase the state’s speed and ability to process claims.
The Oklahoma Employment Security Commission announced this fall that it hopes to complete the project within 18 months, putting it on schedule for completion in the first quarter of 2022.
In addition to money approved by the Legislature, the agency plans to use about $17 million from the first COVID-19 stimulus bill to pay for the upgrade.
Developments on the federal level could also boost Oklahoma’s ability to process benefits in 2021.
President-elect Joe Biden has promised to establish an unemployment “delivery team” that would help states. The team would also be authorized to provide additional federal funds to states.
Congress passed another stimulus package this week that includes a $300 per week extension to federal extended unemployment benefits for 11 weeks. That payment is down from the $600 extra per week under the CARES Act.
The Cost of Waiting
But for Flores and hundreds of other cash-strapped Oklahomans who have been waiting for benefits, there is a cost.
Flores said her emotional and financial struggles over the past several months have pushed her mental health to the brink. She’s also had to forgo many normal household expenses, including a cell phone that she says would help her find work, while she waits to see if she’s eligible.
“I wish I was exaggerating, I wish this was just me being extra,” she said. “But I just can’t get any answers and that is just the most frustrating part.”
Zumwalt said she reads emails each day from applicants frustrated by the process or the long wait times.
“It’s a tough position to be in to have to say, ‘we are working as fast as we can and we are trying to use data to make this go faster,’” she said. “But with that being said, there are just some issues that we have to put through the process, especially if an employer says we shouldn’t get benefits. That is their right and we have to follow guidelines for that.”
Zumwalt added that she encourages applicants to be their own advocates and continue to stay in contact with the agency over questions or issues.
But for Flores, with every passing week where she doesn’t get an answer, she said it’s just more time that she can’t afford to wait on.
“I know I’m not special and that my case isn’t any more special than the next,” she said. “But there has got to be some kind of something that could get this process done quicker.”
Trevor Brown has been an Oklahoma Watch reporter since 2016. He covers politics, elections, health policies and government accountability issues. Call or text him at (630) 301-0589. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @tbrownokc
Paul Monies contributed to this story.