COVID-19 Policy Analysis: As our nation confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, OK Policy will be analyzing state and federal policies that impact our state and its residents during this national health emergency. These posts reflect the most current information available at publication, and we will update or publish follow-ups as new information becomes available.
NOTE: OK Policy is not a state agency and we cannot assist in applying for state services or provide legal advice.
- For direct service assistance, please call 211 or visit the 211 website
- For unemployment, contact the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission
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With the first cases of community spread of the COVID-19 virus in Oklahoma, expect to see effects on the economy soon. The cancellation of events and reduced consumer spending due to social distancing will be challenging for Oklahoma businesses. Workers in the service, hospitality, and retail industries will be particularly at risk of seeing reduced work hours or temporary layoffs. However, there are actions the state can take to soften the negative economic effects of the pandemic in Oklahoma. And they must start with expanding access to unemployment insurance.
Workers whose jobs are affected by the pandemic should be eligible for unemployment compensation
Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor issued guidance for states to clarify how unemployment insurance rules can be temporarily altered to better serve workers who contract COVID-19 or need time away to care for a family member who contracts the virus.
Under normal circumstances, an individual must be “able, available, and looking for work” to qualify to receive unemployment benefits. As the coronavirus continues to spread, however, some workers or their family members will become ill and need to stay away from work until they are no longer contagious. The federal guidance says that these individuals can be considered eligible for unemployment insurance until they are asked to return to work (or are offered a different job) and refuse.
Oklahoma also can choose to waive the work search requirements for unemployed workers temporarily, and this will be very important as people are encouraged to socially distance themselves. Some job search activities can be completed online, but many low-wage jobs still require in-person action such as an on-site application or an in-person interview. Even online job searching requires internet access, which low-income households may not have right now. They often use libraries and other public access locations, which are currently closed during this health emergency. Job search activities will be challenging to complete during social distancing or quarantines. Until it’s safe to resume normal social activity, waiving the job search requirements would ensure workers are not being cut off from benefits without an income to replace the loss.
As another solution, Oklahoma can establish a work share program. This would allow employers to reduce their employees’ hours rather than lay them off. The affected employees than would be eligible to receive partial unemployment benefits for their reduced hours until their regular work hours are restored. Twenty-eight states currently have work share programs, and Oklahoma used to have such a program. Unfortunately, it was repealed in 2015. Work share programs are good for business and for workers, and we should re-establish ours as soon as possible.
Oklahoma should not be reducing access to unemployment insurance
Unemployment benefits are vital for those who are temporarily out of work, even during the best economic times. Unfortunately, our Legislature has been considering legislation to reduce access to unemployment insurance rather than shoring up our program. Last week, the Oklahoma House of Representatives passed HB 3096 (Rep. Zack Taylor, R-Seminole) that would reduce the maximum number of weeks that an individual can receive unemployment insurance to just 12 weeks when the statewide unemployment rate is below 5.5 percent. This would be very unwise, especially during difficult economic times. The unemployment insurance system was designed to soften the effects of economic downturns. The program ensures that laid-off workers still have some small level of income to maintain themselves and purchase basic necessities – and it’s proven to be an effective program. Reducing access hurts both workers and businesses during good and bad times, and HB 3096 would significantly harm Oklahoma’s economy.