Oklahomans from Norman and beyond gathered in front of the Oklahoma State Capitol Monday afternoon to protest what has been, for many, a lack of unemployment checks for weeks.
The group was an eclectic one, but they all had similar feelings of frustration and anger at the inefficiencies of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance — a federal program providing unemployment payments to self-employed workers, freelancers and independent contractors — in Oklahoma.
Normanite Adrian Ball said that as a massage therapist, his place of work was one of the first to close under the advice of the American Massage Therapy Association.
“(I just thought) ‘OK, I’ll close down for a couple weeks,’" Ball said. “Then when … (Norman’s) restrictions came into place, and they kept dragging on, I thought ‘I can’t live without unemployment.’ So I applied for unemployment benefits at the beginning of April, and I haven’t seen anything yet … I can’t speak to anyone that can give me any answers as to why I haven’t been able to receive any benefits.”
Ball said he closed his business March 17, and since then, he’s been able to work on a part-time basis. He thinks he does a good job in his work, and his clients are pretty loyal to him.
“I’ve always thought being self-employed, I’d never have to worry about this,” Ball said. “It’s frustrating because nobody has been able to give any answers.”
David Ostrowe, Gov. Kevin Stitt’s secretary of digital transformation and administration, stood outside the Capitol building to speak with protesters. About 500,000 people across the state have applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits, he said, and the state government has given out about $750 million in aid.
He said the relatively small crowd — which remained around 20 people in size — helped prove that the unemployment claim system is efficient, for the most part.
“Eighteen to 20 people out of 1.8 million working Oklahomans — if anything, that’s the testament that this system is processing these things fast and timely,” Ostrowe said. “We’re going to find out what’s wrong with these claims to get these resolved today.”
Jennifer Robertson, a graphic designer from Norman, said that she was able to get her Pandemic Unemployment Assistance payment, but there are still obvious issues with the unemployment claim system. She said she was at the State Capitol to support protesters because “it’s what’s fair.”
“Finally, because of (Sen. Mary Boren), (I) was able to get my (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) started last week. … There’s people in this group that are Republicans and Democrats and everything in between,” Robertson said. “We work hard and we pay our taxes, and then the state said, ‘Shut down,’ and we’re told that we would be helped.”
The Los Angeles Times reported May 2 that more than 3.5 million Californians have applied for unemployment, and a similar number will probably apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.
Robertson said California’s unemployment claim system is far more streamlined than Oklahoma’s. She said her daughter, who lives in California, received her first unemployment check two weeks after she applied online, and the next check she received had two weeks of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance added to it automatically.
The lack of unemployment payments that many Oklahomans face has two causes, Robertson said — the claim system is run-down, but the state government has also dodged responsibility for handling claims.
“Oklahoma just hasn’t put the work in, and people are suffering because of it, and they’re good people, and they work hard,” Robertson said.
Rebecca Julian held a sign saying, “Claim under investigation! Seven weeks have passed without pay! OESC says wait eight weeks more!” as she summarized her long wait for unemployment benefits. She said she received payments for two weeks, and hasn’t received any since.
“I changed jobs Jan. 27 from a W-2 to an independent contractor, so they had to go back and send a letter to my former employer asking them why I left,” Julian said. “In the meantime, I’ve not received any money in seven weeks, and so when they called me back on Saturday, they said it would be seven to eight more weeks before the investigation would (possibly be) complete. So normal times, they said it takes seven to eight weeks, but now it’s gonna take twice that.”
Ball and Julian both said the lack of unemployment payments has caused them to struggle financially.
Ball said he’s been paying his rent and other expenses, but his credit card bill has continued to climb.
Julian said she hasn’t been able to afford mortgage payments, and her grandson has moved in to help her pay the bills.
State officials need to remember how essential workers are to Oklahoma’s economy, Robertson said.
“The state likes to talk about the Oklahoma standard. … We are the Oklahoma standard,” Robertson said. “We are the economy. … Without our money being spent at the grocery store and all of that, there’s no economy, so the government needs to appreciate the fact that it’s us that built that — it’s not them.”
This post was updated at 11:15 p.m. Monday, May 18, to reflect the correct spelling of "Normanite" in the headline.