OKLAHOMA CITY – A bipartisan Senate interim study held Tuesday at the Capitol took an in-depth look at the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission’s (OESC) response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the lessons learned, and how those lessons will be applied in the future. The study was requested by Business, Commerce and Tourism chair, Sen. James Leewright, R-Bristow, and Senate Democratic Floor Leader, Sen. Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City.
“We wanted to come together in a bipartisan study to look at what happened, where we were before, and how do we make this better for our constituents in the future,” Leewright said. “I feel very confident from the information presented in this study that we’re moving in the right direction, with new steps and procedures to improve the process. We’ll both be monitoring those to make sure they happen in the future.”
Floyd said the hearing detailed the challenges the agency faced.
“The mainframe that OESC was using when we went into the pandemic in March was 42 years old. They started behind the curve simply because of the mainframe, materials and machinery that they had at OESC. That made it very, very difficult,” Floyd said. “But in this study, we heard that the agency has adapted quite well. They’ve made adjustments and been innovative.”
OESC Executive Director Shelley Zumwalt walked committee members through a timeline comparing claims, types of benefits, and fraud cases the 10 years before the pandemic, to the historic events beginning in March of 2020.
Zumwalt, who took over the agency in May, outlined efforts to modernize the agency and institute digital transformation initiatives and outreach programs to reduce the backlog, stop fraud, shore up the unemployment insurance trust for benefits, and coordinate and communicate with state legislators and Oklahoma’s congressional delegation. On Tuesday, OESC did a soft roll-out of a new digital identification verification system, funded with a $1.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to stop fraud.
Looking ahead, Zumwalt said one of the agency’s most successful tools—the unemployment benefits fairs to help clear the backlog of Oklahomans who’d been unable to file for or receive benefits—could be the model for future employment fairs to help more Oklahomans return to the workforce. She also said increased communication with state legislators and the congressional delegation was among the positive takeaways in responding to the serious challenges of the pandemic.
“It’s presented this unique opportunity for my agency and myself to interact with our legislators and our congressional offices in a way that I have never seen before,” Zumwalt said. “I am talking to Senator Leewright almost every single day. I’m talking to Senator Lankford’s office, weekly, if not daily, and we are all getting together to solve this problem, and that’s the way it should work.”
For more information, contact:
Sen. James Leewright at 405-521-5528 or email James.Leewright@oksenate.gov
Sen. Kay Floyd at 405-521-5610 or email Kay.Floyd@oksenate.gov