COVID-19 has changed the employment landscape for years to come in Oklahoma and around the world. In March 2020, the number of unemployed people surged seemingly overnight. Traditionally, employers pay into unemployment insurance (UI), which is usually unavailable for self-employed workers, but that is no longer the case due to programs aimed to help with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The criteria for collecting unemployment has expanded and changed its accessibility to meet Oklahomans' needs during this once-in-a-lifetime event.
Eligibility for Unemployment Claims
Unemployed individuals who need temporary income while looking for work can apply for benefits and receive them, provided they meet these specifications:
- They have lost work through no fault of their own.
- They are available, willing and able to work.
- They earned at least $1,500 during the base period while employed.
The base period occurs over one year. It is the first four of five quarters in the last calendar year the applicant worked.
In some instances, fired workers or those who have quit their jobs may qualify, if they meet certain requirements. The Oklahoma Employment Security Commission (OESC) asks applicants to explain the reasons for their termination in detail before deciding to approve or refuse UI benefits.
Benefits When Quitting or Getting Fired
The OESC places a hold on a claim when the applicant gets fired or quits their job. It researches the reasons they are no longer working to determine if they are eligible for benefits. If a worker quits their job with "good cause," they can receive UI benefits, according to Tulsa's Oklahoma Unemployment Experts. Certain circumstances leave a worker no other recourse but to quit their job. These include:
- Dangerous working conditions (such as machinery that is unsafe or a lack of safety gear).
- Conditions causing injury.
- Conditions causing illness or exacerbating it.
- Change in working conditions that creates a harmful environment.
- Breach of the original hiring terms by the employer.
- Lack of consistent payment.
- Hostile work environment.
Even if an employee gets fired, there is still a chance they can receive benefits, depending on the cause of the termination. Employees who commit misconduct, such as an intentional act of dereliction, breaching their relationship with their employer, or extreme tardiness or absenteeism, are not eligible for benefits. However, if an employer fires an employee due to discrimination, that person can receive unemployment compensation.
Oklahoma's Weekly Benefit Amount
Oklahoma's weekly maximum UI benefit is $539; its minimum is $16, as of March, 2021. The OESC calculates this amount from a worker's wages during their base period. It equals 1/23 of their highest calendar quarter of taxable income during that time, but does not exceed the state's maximum benefit amount. Applicants usually receive benefits for up to 26 weeks.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government has added money to the state's benefits package through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Federal and state lawmakers have also extended the number of weeks in which people can claim benefits.
Elements of the CARES Act
The federal CARES Act has given people who are out of work, but who would ordinarily be ineligible for benefits, the opportunity to collect them. Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, is an available option for independent contractors. PUA ends on March 13, 2021, but claimants who still have benefits may continue to collect them until April 4, 2021 or until they run out.
An applicant may also receive Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) through the CARES Act. This is an additional 13 weeks of benefits for those whose regular UI has ended. The weeks initially ran through December 26, 2020, but have been extended for 11 more weeks for a total of 24 weeks. PEUC also ends on March 13, 2021, but claimants who still have benefits may continue to collect them until April 4, 2021, or until they run out.
The CARES Act initially provided $600 a week to claimants in addition to their UI, PUA, and PEUC payments, but this ended on July 25, 2020. Benefits as of early 2021 include an additional $300, but this money is available only through March 14, 2021; however, Congress may extend extra benefits in the future, as many people have not yet gone back to work.
Applying for UI Benefits
The unemployed person in Oklahoma must provide certain information to the OESC to open a new claim:
- Social Security number.
- Contact information.
- License or state-issued ID number.
- Contact information for last employer.
- Start and end dates of last job.
- Amount they earned and how they were paid (hourly, weekly or monthly).
- Alien ID number and expiration date, if applicable.
- DD Form 214 for applicants in the military 18 months before opening their claim.
- Form SF8 or SF 50 for applicants employed by the federal government 18 months before opening their claim.
The unemployed worker can fill out their initial application on the OESC's website, after which they will get a letter notifying them of the claim determination. Even if the state denies an applicant benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government may approve them, depending on the circumstances of their case.
Keeping Up With Weekly Claims
Claimants can create an account on the OESC website to track their benefits and any other necessary information. They must also look for work while collecting benefits via the state's OkJobMatch site within seven days of filing their first claim and perform at least two weekly work search efforts while collecting benefits; job searches through internet employment sites like Indeed or LinkedIn are also acceptable. Keeping a record of these searches allows the claimant to continue receiving benefits if the state decides to audit their work search.
The unemployed person must remember to file a weekly claim to receive consistent benefits. The week begins on Sunday and ends on Saturday, so the claimant can file for the previous week beginning on Sunday.
Receiving UI Benefits
The state issues UI benefits via a debit card, which can take up to 18 days to receive. It will have a zero balance until the OESC approves the first claim. The department will add money to the card after the claimant certifies each week. Claimants can sign up for direct deposit or use the card at an ATM or point of purchase.
Claimants who have received UI benefits in the past three years must use the card already issued to them by the OESC, which does not issue checks. If they need to replace a debit card, they can do so by contacting the card maker, Conduent, at 866-320-8699. Benefits will not continue if:
- The applicant doesn't make enough money for eligibility.
- There is an investigation of the claimant.
- The claimant hasn't filed a weekly claim.
Appealing Refusal of a Claim
If the OESC refuses a claim, an applicant can appeal that decision. The OESC will send an appeal packet with a scheduled hearing date to the claimant, as well as information on what they'll need to bring to the hearing. Anyone appealing their case must do so with 10 days of receiving the refusal.
The OESC can take about six weeks to research a case. During that time, the applicant should continue to file weekly claims. If approved by the OESC's Appeal Tribunal, they will receive payments for the weeks claimed. If refused a second time, the applicant can appeal through the department's Board of Review, which will also research the case and render a decision. This ruling can also be appealed within 30 days of the OSEC's mailing date.
Pausing or Stopping Benefits
The OESC may view a person who does not return to work when it becomes available as voluntarily terminating their relationship with their employer. This could disqualify them from future UI benefits. People who go back to work full time can keep their claims open but not file for those weeks. If they return to part-time work, they can continue to file but must report gross earnings to receive partial UI benefits each week.
Those who want to stop their claim can do so by no longer filing weekly claims. To cancel their account altogether, they must submit a copy of their Social Security card and government-issued ID to the OESC with a statement giving the reason they wish to end the claim.
Fraud Perpetrated by the Claimant
A claimant who continues to receive benefits and goes back to work without informing the OESC is in violation of state fraud laws. The department requires employers to report employees who have returned to work, as well as any new hires. It then matches those names to claimants with active UI accounts. If it finds a name on both lists, it will further research the case to decide if the person claiming benefits is fraudulent in doing so.
The OESC expects an individual who committed fraud to pay the money back. In addition, they may have to pay accrued interest or a 25 percent penalty. Failure to report earnings while collecting benefits is a criminal offense that may result in jail time and prevent any claims for up to two years.
Fraud Perpetrated by Others
Due to the sheer and sudden magnitude of UI applicants as a result of the pandemic, there has also been an unprecedented number of fraudulent claims. Workers who suspect fraud in their name or who receive a card in their name that they never applied for should contact the OESC and fill out its online fraud form. Those who are still on the job should contact their personnel or human resources department where they work.
If a claimant sees charges they never made on the unemployment debit card, they should report the action to Conduent and get additional assistance from an identity or credit monitoring service, as fraud may extend to other aspects of their personal information.
Taxes and UI Benefits
Claimants receiving UI benefits must pay federal and state income tax on that money. If a claimant received UI benefits in 2020, they report these earnings on their taxes in 2021. The OSEC sends out a Form 1099-G detailing the claimant's benefits on January 31 of every year.
When applying for UI benefits, the OESC offers the claimant the opportunity to have state and federal taxes withheld from their weekly benefits. To do this, they merely check a box while certifying their weekly claim. This will deduct 10 percent of federal taxes and three percent of state taxes from their gross benefits each week.
- Oklahoma Unemployment Experts: Can I Collect Oklahoma Unemployment Benefits if I Quit My Job?
- Oklahoma Employment Security Commission: Unemployment Benefits
- Oklahoma Unemployment Experts: Can I Collect Oklahoma Unemployment Benefits if I Was Fired?
- Oklahoma Employment Security Commission: Reemployment Assistance for the Unemployed
- Oklahoma Employment Security Commission: Registration
- OK Job Match: Welcome Job Seeker
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.