The Federal Government has taken significant action to shore up the unemployment insurance program — and there’s more Oklahoma can do.

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.

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More than 6.6 million Americans filed initial claims for unemployment insurance during the week ending March 28, 2020, including 44,970 Oklahomans. That is an increase from the previous week, which saw initial claims of 3.3 million nationally and 21,926 in Oklahoma. These numbers are a new record for initial claims, both nationally and in our state. The previous record for national unemployment claims was set in October 1982 with 695,000 claims, so the past week’s claims are nearly 10 times the previous record. Job losses during the past two weeks all but eliminated the jobs created in the last five years. These two weeks of unemployment claims offer the first data on how the COVID-19 public health emergency is impacting the economy. Last week’s picture was grim, and it may be that way for a bit.

However, there is some good news. The CARES Act, passed recently by the federal government, includes a significant boost to unemployment insurance to help people who find themselves unable to work right now. Oklahoma could maximize the benefit of this relief package by reestablishing our work share program to better help workers who still have jobs, but with reduced hours.

Unemployment will be going up — a lot

With a record number of new claims filed in the week ending March 21 and even higher numbers the following week, we should be prepared for the unemployment rate to rise. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that Oklahoma will lose more than 200,000 jobs by July – that’s 15.7 percent of our total private-sector employment. Many of those jobs lost will be in the service and hospitality industries, and these workers will not be able to quickly find new jobs. 

Unemployment will go up, and it is likely to remain high throughout the summer. The national unemployment rate was 3.5 percent in February before the virus outbreak hit the U.S. Although current figures have not been published, estimates place the national unemployment rate right now between 10 and 13 percent. By comparison, the unemployment rate during the Great Recession was about 10 percent in 2009, while it was about 25 percent in 1933 during the height of the Great Depression. Some forecasters have projected we could see the national unemployment rate reach 30 percent.

The CARES Act will provide expanded unemployment benefits for more workers

The federal CARES Act will provide a boost for the unemployment insurance system to help sustain workers until the economy begins to recover. The bill creates three new temporary benefits, all funded by the federal government.

Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC)

From March 27 until July 30, all unemployment insurance beneficiaries will receive their usual weekly benefit and an additional $600 per week. This additional benefit is a flat amount, and the full amount will be given to all claimants regardless of whether they are fully or partially unemployed.

Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) 

An additional 13 weeks of benefits will be available after an individual exhausts their regular unemployment benefits. In Oklahoma, the maximum number of weeks for regular unemployment insurance benefits is 26. This additional 13 weeks will bring the maximum up to 39 weeks.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)

This new program will provide unemployment benefits to individuals who would not normally qualify for state unemployment compensation. This includes the self-employed, independent contractors, anyone seeking part-time work, and workers who do not have a long enough work history to qualify for state unemployment benefits. Applicants will need to demonstrate they are unemployed, or unable to work due to the pandemic. Workers are not eligible for PUA if they are able to remotely work with pay or are receiving paid leave. Workers will be retroactively eligible for up to 39 weeks of PUA, and the program will expire at the end of this year.

Oklahoma could restart our work share program to better cover workers with reduced hours

In addition to these three new benefits, the CARES Act also provides federal funding for work share programs. In states with work share programs, employers can avoid lay-offs by placing workers on part-time work schedules. Affected workers can then collect partial unemployment benefits to recoup some of their lost income. In the case of work share, the employer submits the documentation for all affected workers, and the employees do not have to submit individual claims for unemployment benefits.

Under the CARES Act, the federal government will finance 100 percent of work share benefits in states that already have such programs. Unfortunately, Oklahoma is not one of these states. The state previously had a work share program, but it was repealed in 2014. Now would be an opportune time to restart the program — the CARES Act includes grants to states that wish to create work share programs to offset the costs of establishing such a program. The federal government will fund 50 percent of those benefits for the remainder of the year. Work share programs are good for business and for workers, and Oklahoma should take this opportunity to reestablish our program while federal support is available.


Courtney Cullison worked for OK Policy from 2017 to 2020 as a policy analyst focused on issues of economic opportunity and financial security. Before coming to OK Policy, Courtney worked in higher education, holding faculty positions at the University of Texas at Tyler and at Connors State College in eastern Oklahoma. A native Oklahoman, she received an Honors B.A. in Political Science from Oklahoma State University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. with emphasis in congressional politics and public policy from the University of Oklahoma. While at OU, Courtney was a fellow at the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center. As a professor she taught classes in American politics, public policy, and research methods and conducted original research with a focus on the relationship between representatives and the constituents they serve.

23 thoughts on “The Federal Government has taken significant action to shore up the unemployment insurance program — and there’s more Oklahoma can do.

    1. My husband has been waiting to apply as a self employed person. I cannot imagine how this will work since my husband normally has a single and very intense, five month contract starting May 1st each summer. So we are not sure if he should wait until May 1st to apply anyway. I would bet that there are many of these kinds of irregular ‘jobs’ in the ‘gig’ economy. Especially with Seniors who’s Social Security does not cover their living expenses.

  1. When will the OESC be ready for independent contractors to apply? I applied anyway and received a letter denying regular unemployment when I clearly stated I was an independent contractor. So frustrating.

  2. I like. But I am self-employed and have been turned down two times as well cant get anyone to talk to me to help, the online sight offers no help and i need help. I am Paul with a family of 4 and 50 years old and have been working sense I was 8 and i need help.

  3. Can we contact our Governor and legislators to encourage them to do this? It’s a great idea!

  4. i rec’d this facebook messenger reply today from the OESC: you are correct, Self-employed individuals do not qualify for benefits under normal circumstances. This would be what we mean when we refer to traditional benefits. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which we anticipate to have set up in the next few weeks will be able to cover self-employed individuals and those who would not normally qualify for unemployment benefits.

    1. Did you have to apply for extended benefits or did you automatically get them? Thanks in advance…

  5. Now when I call unemployment I get the same thing they are unable to help me but someone from level two with contact me I have been told this 3 different times and I have received no call back. It seems as if they hired a bunch of people to take down messages not to help get our questions resolved

    1. I completely agree. Oklahoma is pretty much stalling on helping us. This is classic Oklahoma government helping its citizens!

    2. I’ve called 12 times, when they answer they can’t help and says they will have someone call , and they never have

    3. We are getting the same thing. It’s been a month and a half and no callback. I call everyday. It’s insane.

  6. My unemployment has run out and i have called several times to get the extension but all i get is entry level workers who supposedly prioritize my claim to get a call back but nothing happens!

  7. My husband has been unemployed since 6/2019 and exhausted his first round of benefits in December 2019. Under the CARES act is he eligible for an extension in unemployment as he has been unable to find work and with the Covid-19 happening it will be even longer before we can expect him to be reemployed.

  8. Ok it is now May 1st and the PUC and the PUEC still has not come through for gig workers and unemployed workers. What is the hold up. If it is the system updates, what could be taking so long? If it is federal money still not funded, why? We need the system to also work for us faster.

  9. This system in this state makes you wish never lived here. Ok acts like it’s in the 1800s wants your tax money but doesn’t do anything to help with anything pass the buck that’s all Oklahoma is good for

  10. When you exhaust your benefits will we need to reapply for the extension in oklahoma or willit be automatic and keep going

  11. When will PUA be available to us who were denied regular unemployment?! $1200 one time did almost nothing!!!

  12. I have been trying since 4/14/20 to get a call back from a level 2 agent and still have not had anyone ever get back with me the skipped 6 weeks of payments and finally started paying me again but what about the weeks they didn’t I filed them and now I have benefits left on my claim it shows them on the web site but I filed my weekly claim and it says no payment will be made insufficient funds but I have funds on my claim but only a level 2 agent can fix it yet I can’t get one to contact me and I am beyond fed up with them this is the first time I have ever had to use unemployment and I have been homeless 2 times because of their lack of taking care of my claim or a level 2 agent calling me back soon to be homeless a 3rd time now

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