Sen. Micheal Bergstrom

As Oklahoma prepares to fully reopen over the next month, there have been many questions about unemployment benefits and who will remain eligible, as well as how the reopening will take place.

As most everyone knows, the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission (OESC) has had its problems. Let’s just say they started off understaffed and with an antiquated system to deal with the situation that COVID-19 put us in.

OESC’s call center staffing started at 26 and now it’s at more than 500. The website has undergone a major upgrade to allow a higher volume of applications to be processed in a quicker time period. So, if you have lost your job, the easiest way to apply for unemployment benefits should be online at oesc.ok.gov.

But for many, that has not been the reality. In the last couple weeks, my assistant and I have assisted hundreds of individuals who couldn’t get their benefits straightened out. That, by the way, is what we’re here to do.

For those of you without an income because of the pandemic, it is imperative that you get the help to get by. However, it’s important to remember that unemployment compensation is not a long-term solution.

It is great that those who lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic may receive not only the standard unemployment benefit, but also an extra $600 per week from the federal CARES Act. As a result, there are some making more money on unemployment than they made at their jobs.

But what if your employer reopens? What if the business gets the federal Payroll Protection Plan funding and tells employees to come back to work?

First, remember that unemployment benefits are intended to be a stopgap; temporary.

If an employer reopens and an employee chooses not to return thinking he or she can make more on unemployment, that’s a big mistake.

If you don’t go back to work you will lose your unemployment benefits.

This point was emphasized during a conversation I participated in with U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia a couple days ago. He made it clear that a person’s eligibility for unemployment expires when he or she fails to return to work.

So, let’s look at where we are in Oklahoma and at the Governor’s recommended guidelines.

Phase one of the state’s reopening began on April 24 when personal care businesses like nail and hair salons, barbershops, spas and pet groomers were to open in most of the state as long as they follow social distancing and health protocols from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Restaurants, entertainment and sporting venues, movie theaters and gyms were to open on May 1 with similar protocols. Churches are asked to leave every other pew or row open.

If we do not see a surge in cases, we should move to phase two of the plan on May 15 with the reopening of organized sports activities and bars, again with social distancing.

Should everything remain stable, phase three begins on June 1.

What’s in phase three? Not much detail yet, but summer and church camps should feel free to open at this point.

The steps to reopen the economy are in place and I’m excited for Oklahomans to get back to work. Although there is light at the end of the tunnel, please remember that things will not simply go back to normal. We will want to be careful as we move forward, especially in regard to protecting our most vulnerable.

At the same time, Oklahoma must get back to work so we can rebuild our economy and return to our daily lives.

Thank you for allowing me to serve you. If I can help you during this time, please reach out to my office. You can email me at Micheal.Bergstrom@ oksenate.gov or call 405-521-5561.

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