This story was updated at 12:45 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 7, to include an additional statement from an OESC spokesperson received after initial publication.
The head of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission announced Friday an abrupt end to the state extended benefits program, a program introduced in July meant to help unemployed Oklahomans who have exhausted other means of relief during the COVID-19 pandemic.
OESC Director Shelley Zumwalt said it is by federal dictate that no payments will be disbursed after Saturday, Dec. 12, even to recipients who had not yet exhausted their benefits.
"I know this is sooner than many people expected. Frankly, it's sooner than I expected for the end of this program," Zumwalt said in a video message posted to social media Friday night. "I expected we would have more time to notify you and wind down the program."
"But OESC has to follow this end date dictated by DOL (the federal Department of Labor). We cannot change this end date or the ending of the program," Zumwalt said.
"I know the gravity of what I'm telling many people. I know this is not information that any of you want to receive right now before the holidays," Zumwalt said. "I can't control the end date of this program, I can't control the triggering off of these benefits, but what I can control is how and when I deliver this information to you, and I wanted you to have it immediately so that you can make decisions that you need to make and that you would have it just as soon as I did."
OESC spokesperson Nick Buscemi said Monday they are not yet sure how many Oklahomans will be affected by the end of the program, and provided this additional statement from Zumwalt: "The pandemic and its associated consequences triggered this benefit, which is regulated by DOL, for the first time since the 1980s. With the holidays approaching we wanted to let claimants know immediately and made the announcement within minutes of receiving the email. The agency will continue to work with claimants to ensure they’re able to access the benefits they qualify for and answer any questions regarding this DOL requirement.”
In a Thursday report, the agency said unemployment rates increased in all 77 Oklahoma counties over the month of October.