Yes, Virginia, You Can Qualify for Unemployment

I interrupt this week’s trip through the protections of the bankruptcy code to focus a few minutes on the extraordinary unemployment benefits available for residents of the State of Oklahoma during the COVID-19 (Corona virus) pandemic.

Ordinarily, at least in Oklahoma, self-employed people (including independent contractors, sole owner/employees of S-Corps or LLC’s, gig workers, etc.) are not eligible for unemployment benefits.  The reason is, because traditionally in order to be eligible for benefits your employer had to pay into the system (which is a mandate for most employers). Then, when an employee goes to collect from the system, the computer system designed to process that application checks to make sure that the applicant is a covered insured.  If you aren’t a covered insured (i.e., if no employer has been paying into the system on your behalf), then the computer system is designed to reject your application out of hand.

EXCEPT!  Recent legislation out of Congress has changed that.  Yes, I know in Oklahoma employment benefits are processed and paid out of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, which is a STATE agency.  It is not under the control of Congress — most of the time.  Congress has always had a hand in the unemployment system, even though it is largely controlled and exclusively administered by the States; and a few weeks ago Congress flexed a little muscle (and a lot of money).

Now, because of the current pandemic, people who have never paid into the system — self-employed, gig workers, sole proprietors, sole owner/employer of an S-Corp or an LLC — are all now eligible to collect from a system they have never paid into.  But WAIT, it gets better!   Congress is ponying up the cash to increase most people’s weekly benefit (and by a lot — like $600 for most), they have extended the number of weeks that benefits are available, and they have eliminated the week off work that you have to wait before you are eligible to collect benefits.  Oh, and they have also dispensed with the weekly requirement that all applicants be actively looking for work (you know, during that whole shelter at home thing).

So, what’s the catch?  Come on, you know there is one.  The catch is that Oklahoma’s unemployment computer system was completely unprepared for this.  First, there is the eligibility for an insurance program of people who have never been insured (i.e., paying into the system).  Then, there is the increased benefit, the changes in timing and eligibility requirements.  Its enough to give an ancient computer system a nervous breakdown.  In all fairness I don’t know that our unemployment system is still built on COBOL (New Jersey has made a lot of news for their COBOL system looking for retirees willing to come back to work on it.)  Ours may be Fortran, but whatever it is — it ain’t new.  Then, the people who are needed to maintain and rewrite it to adapt to these major changes are all — working from home — in their pajamas and slippers.  Add to that record setting unemployment levels and you have a disaster waiting to happen — and it is happening.

So, here is the skinny straight from Oklahoma State Representative Mickey Dollens:

UPDATED 4/14/2020 – OKLAHOMA UNEMPLOYMENT:

The following guidance, tips, recommendations, comments, and answers will help you navigate the unemployment filing process. I’ll do my best to answer your questions in the comments section. If I don’t know the answer then I’ll seek out those who do.

Self-employed workers, independent contractors, free-lancers, and gig economy workers who are not typically eligible for unemployment benefits will be covered under the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program which is part of the new CARES Act:

• The Oklahoma Employment Security Commission (OESC) cannot implement these extended unemployment benefits for independent contractors until guidance is handed down from the U.S. Department of Labor on how to administer these benefits.

• Independent contractors must provide alternate forms of financial documentation (pay stubs, invoices, 1099’s, etc.) This is different from what is required for traditional claims.

• If an independent contractor applies for unemployment benefits right now, they will receive an immediate denial message. DO NOT REQUEST AN APPEAL. Any appeal will delay your claims process. Those individuals must wait until OESC has implemented the guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor and updated its system to allow for the processing of PUA claims. OESC is hoping this will be mid-late April.

• Having mentioned the above, both W2 and self-employed can start the process by filing an online claim: https://unemployment.state.ok.us

• Self-employed are not required to file weekly claims while the state waits on the Federal implementation of the PUA program. They will start filing weekly claims at that point.

• W2 claimants ARE REQUIRED to file claims every week as soon as you file. If possible, it’s best to do this each Sunday because this triggers payment. During the emergency all work search requirements are waived. But be sure to respond “yes” when you are asked if you have made your required weekly work searches. Otherwise your benefits will stop.

• It is important to note that once OESC receives the necessary PUA guidance, OESC will backdate all independent contractors claims to March 30, the date the CARES Act went into effect.

• All claimants are eligible for an additional $600/week in Federal unemployment supplemental benefits. The Federal supplemental benefit starts the week of April 4, 2020, and runs through the week ending July 25th, 2020. All claims will be backdated to the date your covid19 related job loss occurred. In some cases, claims may be backdated all the way to Feb. 8, 2020.

• There is no additional process required to receive the Federal unemployment supplemental funds. All approved claimants will receive this automatically.

• Benefits begin as soon as you file. The one week waiting period has been suspended. All claims filed with an effective date of 3/15/20 or later will have the waiting period waived for the duration of the emergency.

Here is some general information:

• Oklahoma provides for 26 weeks of unemployment. The new federal CARES Act adds 13 weeks of additional unemployment for a total of 39 weeks.

• OESC has expanded its call center to better serve claimants. The average call wait time has dropped significantly from last week: 1-800-555-1554

• OESC designed a more user friendly website, https://oesc.ok.gov. However, as of 4/11/20 some of their answers in the FAQ have not been updated to reflect the extended benefits provided in the Federal Cares Act.

Here are some additional tips for those who are self-employed:

• File a claim for PUA as soon as it becomes available. (OESC says mid-April.) If you’ve already filed a claim, that’s fine. OESC will announce when the PUA program is implemented and ready independent contractors likely by mid to late April.

• When filing a claim as self-employed the application will ask for your “employer.” Use your name here. The requirement to put your resume on okjobmatch is waived for the duration of the emergency. At this time the OESC has also waived the work search requirement. List the day you were laid off when it asks for “start date” and keep blank for “end date”

• If the application tells you, “self-employed do not qualify,” or “monetarily ineligible for lack of reported wages“ simply click “continue.” DO NOT FILE AN APPEAL. If you’re self-employed then it is not necessary to file weekly claims until PUA is implemented. You will still receive back pay once the PUA kicks in.

• When you file your claim you will be asked for information about your separating employer. If your separation was due to the business closing or reducing hours due to COVID-19, please mark your reason for separation as a “LACK OF WORK.”

• You will receive an email and or letter saying your application was denied. This means the system hasn’t been updated yet. Save your claim ID number. Do not file a monetary appeal.

Again, OESC will announce when the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program is ready to be administered, which should be mid-late April.

• Benefit amounts will be calculated based on previous income.You will need financial records such as tax returns or pay stubs that document your earnings.

• To check the status of your claim, go to https://unemployment.state.ok.us/w2.aspx You will find information regarding the status of your application, recent activity, monetary entitlement, and determinations of eligibility.

• An unemployment benefit debit card will be issued to you at the time your first eligible week processes. It normally takes between 7-10 days to receive the card. If it takes longer than 7-10 days then they likely ran out and will send you a card as soon as they’re restocked. If you receive a debit card with no balance, that probably just means that your eligibility to receive benefits has not been processed yet.

• If you want to have your benefit deposited directly, visit GoProgram.com or call 1-866-320-8699 and use the automated system to enter your banking information

•If you experience difficulties in filing your claim you may e-mail OESC Helps at oesc.helps@oesc.state.ok.us or call 1-800-555-1554

• If you don’t have internet then you can mail copies of two forms of IDs (one has to be a photo ID) to: OESC P.O. Box 52006 Oklahoma City, OK 73152-2006

Final thoughts:

• Here’s an informative article that goes into more details about the UI provisions in the CARES Act: https://americanactionforum.org/…/enhanced-unemployment-b…/…

•Please be mindful about fraudulent activity at this time. Fraudsters are coming at us through websites, phone calls, and even in person. Be assured you can trust https://govstatus.egov.com/oklahoma-coronavirus-information to connect you directly to government websites for general updates, business help, unemployment help, and all things COVID-19.

One important change in this advice from Rep. Dollens is regarding the advisability of filing an appeal.  Last week House Minority Leader Emily Virgin was advising filing an appeal.  Evidently, the system has been tweaked since then.

Regardless, this is the latest information that I have available regarding these extraordinary employment benefits for these extraordinary times.  What I can tell you is that a client of mine who filed at my urging got his benefits debit card in the mail yesterday.

Good luck, remember, the people at OESC are slammed, their system is crumbling around them; and if you get nowhere — call your State Rep or your State Senator — both of whom have way more time on their hands right now than anyone at OESC.

Elaine

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