Journal Record – Oklahomans who filed 17,720 initial claims for unemployment benefits last week shattered a nearly 30-year-old record.
The previous record for filings in a week in the state occurred in January 1991 when 9,778 initial claims for benefits were recorded. The latest number for the Sooner State, reported Thursday by the U.S. Department of Labor, was 81% higher than the historic spike of 29 years ago.
The DOL blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for a new record 3.283 million initial jobless claims filed across the United States in the week that ended March 21.
“Nearly every state providing comments cited the COVID-19 virus impacts,” the DOL said in a statement released with its report. “States continued to cite services industries broadly, particularly accommodation and food services.”
The pandemic, which sparked passage of a more than $2 trillion relief package late Wednesday by the U.S. Senate, also has heavily affected broad-ranging industries from transportation to warehousing to manufacturing, the DOL said.
In Oklahoma, the state’s energy industry has taken an additional hit resulting from serious declines in oil and natural gas prices.
In a statement about the federal relief measure, which still must be voted on in the U.S. House of Representatives, Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, said he was pleased that it targeted “the heart of our Oklahoma economy – small businesses, the workers they employ, and the families they serve.”
However, in comments made on the Senate floor, Lankford lamented that Democratic lawmakers had acted to block specific relief for energy companies.
“They really want to make sure that energy companies couldn’t get any support. They fought hard to be able to make sure there is no additional money for the president buying additional oil to put in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve at this lowest price now,” Lankford said. “So it will actually cost us more money in the future, but it was their intention to say we don’t want oil companies to get any kind of support in this downturn.”
The federal recovery initiative, the largest economic stimulus plan in the nation’s history, does include support for businesses. A $367 billion loan-to-grant program, for example, would help employers cover payroll costs of employees who might be forced to stay home during the pandemic. Money used to cover immediate costs of remaining in business would not have to be paid back.
At the Petroleum Alliance of Oklahoma, Chairman David Le Norman welcomed the effort in Congress to help millions of workers and businesses.
“However, Oklahomans in the oil and natural gas industry faces unique threats from an unprecedented drop in demand and a global price war,” he said. “Our industry will continue to work with policymakers to protect the critical infrastructure and operations that fuel our nation’s economy.”
In a videoconference held with reporters on Thursday, Oklahoma Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said state officials have been poring over the federal relief measure as they brace for impacts of COVID-19 on spending both this fiscal year and next.
“I know there are some direct revenues for municipalities of over 500,000 that were included in the bill, so Tulsa and Oklahoma City should be expecting some direct revenue. I know there are some issues in there that state government will oversee as well,” he said. “We are still poring through the bill to see exactly what the implications are. As far as the oil and gas industry, I think that the terms of the bill that apply to businesses under 500 (employees) will impact positively a lot of our oil and gas operations, to be able to take out loans to be able to keep their workforce up if they can do that. (However), many of them were cutting workforce before this started, so it’s a real serious time for our oil and gas industry here in Oklahoma.”
The nearly 3.3 million filings for unemployment benefits across the nation, which caused system failures in some states, more than quadrupled the previous record number set in 1982. The Associated Press reported Thursday that some economists fear the nation’s unemployment rate could approach 13% by May. By comparison, the highest jobless rate during the Great Recession was 10%.
Lankford said the continuing pandemic already has resulted in urgent needs for relief nationwide. Some specifics of the bill notable for Oklahomans include:
- At least $1.25 billion in emergency funding for state and local governments.
- Direct payments of $1,200 for adults and $500 each for dependent children to help Oklahomans recover.
- Four months of beefed-up unemployment insurance benefits to help people in the state who have lost jobs.
“(And) it has a unique new proposal that’s built in to be able to say a small business can go to any bank rapidly to be able to get a loan there, which will convert into a grant if they maintain their current employee numbers. That keeps people connected to their business and keeps people assured of a job at the end of all this,” Lankford said in comments on the Senate floor.
In a statement, U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, said he was hopeful the relief package will be passed soon.
“As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to turn our world upside down, I am grateful that Congress and the Trump administration are one step closer to helping those hardest hit,” he said. “The economic consequences of this crisis are tremendous and have hurt many companies, industries, small businesses, communities and families – by no fault of their own. It is indeed right to urgently deliver financial relief to Americans (and) to stabilize the economy.”
Jeff Seymour, executive vice president for economic development at the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, said there will be a great need, too, going forward for strong communication between federal, state and local governments and businesses.
“Overall, I’m pleased the right conversations are taking place about keeping the economy going, keeping businesses open and people employed,” he said. “From an economic development perspective, it’s good that the conversation has focused on providing flexibility for businesses to keep their doors open, including loan options to help with payroll needs. At the local level, we have to make sure that businesses of all size are protected and taken care of.”
The chamber has launched a website, www.okcchamber.com/covid19, with resources for people and businesses. There is a link, for example, to find out how to access assistance through the Small Business Administration.