Oklahoma Senator James Lankford and the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission's executive director, Robin Roberson, hosted a telephone town hall on Tuesday to answer constituent questions regarding relief programs to address the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
Introducing Roberson, Lankford said "she handles and coordinates unemployment insurance for our state."
Roberson said that OESC historically hasn't put much of a focus on unemployment insurance because of a particularly low unemployment rate, but that since the start of the coronavirus crisis, they've fielded 200,000 unemployment claims.
"There hasn't been a lot of focus on unemployment because the traditional average of claims being processed every week were about 1,500 to 2,000," she said. "Fast forward: now we're closer to 45,000 per week."
Lankford and Roberson took calls from across Oklahoma on a variety of topics.
On the issue of the pandemic stimulus checks announced by the Senate, Lankford said that those would start being issued this week, with taxpayers set up for direct deposit with the federal government receiving the funds most quickly.
Asked by a bartender in Oklahoma City about filing for unemployment assistance due to her non-essential workplaces being closed, Roberson said it was important for workers to get documentation on past wages from employers.
"We can not just go off someone's word," Roberson said. "We have to have something to back up that documentation."
Roberson said that eight weeks ago, OESC had 11 employees working their phone lines; as of Tuesday, that number was 800.
"I'm very happy with the progress that we're making," Roberson said. "It's not enough. We're obviously not slowing down."
"We are working night and day. Everybody is so committed to working hard," Roberson said. "I dont want anyone to think no one is working as hard as they can. We are here to try to support you as quickly as we can."
Asked by a constituent in Kansas, Okla., about the process for "getting back to normal" and reopening the state's economy, Lankford, a Republican, contradicted President Trump's claims on Monday that the White House had "total authority" over when states would reopen.
"Those decisions will be made by governors," Lankford said, "and there'll also be recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control."
Lankford encouraged Oklahomans to support each other throughout the course of the turmoil caused by the virus.
"Continue to pray for each other," Lankford said. "For those of us in Oklahoma, we all know how to manage a storm and how to be able to help our neighbors in a storm. This is just a very different kind of storm."
Lankford said Oklahomans looking for more information on the federal Paycheck Protection Program and the $1,200 federal stimulus checks should visit his website. Roberson directed residents seeking to file for unemployment or learn more about who qualifies for the new coronavirus-specific unemployment program to the OESC website.