$1,200 to go back to work: Oklahoma is offering incentive to a limited number of unemployed workers

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Dale Denwalt, Oklahoman
Published 6:45 p.m. ET May 17, 2021

Gov. Kevin Stitt announced a $1,200 incentive to unemployed Oklahomans headed to work. The state will also end enhanced federal unemployment benefits.

Oklahoman

The state of Oklahoma will pay people $1,200 to get off unemployment benefits and start working.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed an executive order creating the Return to Work Incentive, which incentivizes finding a job instead of continuing to claim unemployment benefits.

The first 20,000 people who qualify and apply for the program will receive $1,200 after completing six weeks of a new job.

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“Our challenge is not to get businesses back open; we’ve done that. It’s been getting employees back to work,” Stitt said Monday. “Without a doubt, one of the factors causing this has been the continued extension of extra federal benefits.”

Gov. Kevin Stitt looks on as Employment Security Commission Executive Director Shelley Zumwalt speaks during a press conference to announce at $1200 return to work incentive for unemployed Oklahomans at Freymiller Trucking in Oklahoma City, Okla. on Monday, May 17, 2021.
 (Photo: CHRIS LANDSBERGER/THE OKLAHOMAN)

Oklahoma also will shut down all extra federal benefits created last year when the pandemic triggered record levels of unemployment. That includes:

► The $300-per-week Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) tacked onto other unemployment benefits.

► Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), which extends unemployment benefits beyond the traditional 26-week cutoff.

► Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which provides benefits to workers who don’t otherwise qualify, like self-employed and gig workers.

► Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation (MEUC), which provided an additional $100 per week in benefits to individuals who received at least $5,000 of self-employment income in the most recent taxable year and were not receiving PUA benefits.

Some 90,000 people in the state are currently receiving FPUC, said Shelley Zumwalt, executive director of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission. In all, she said 200,000 Oklahomans are eligible for work but don’t have a job.

“I hear from employers every single day about their struggles to find staff for their businesses,” said Zumwalt.

By announcing the end of pandemic-related benefits now, Oklahoma is giving people six weeks to find a job before they expire. The federal government told states to notify residents at least 30 days before ending those payouts. After June 27, the only state-run financial benefits available to out-of-work Oklahomans will be traditional unemployment payments that existed long before the pandemic began.

The signup page for the Return to Work Incentive will go live June 28 at OESC’s website. 

More: At least 7 million Americans in line for unemployment tax refunds

The $1,200 incentive is available for claimants who received Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation or traditional unemployment between May 2 and May 15. They must also complete six consecutive weeks of employment at 32 hours a week or more with the same employer.

Payments will begin dispersing the second week in July. The funds come from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan.

Democrats in the state Legislature criticized the decision to end federal unemployment benefits before they officially expire in September.

“The reality is that the pandemic is not yet over,” said state Sen. Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City. “For Oklahomans to get back to work, they need the assurance employers will make accommodations to keep them safe at work, their children have safe and quality childcare and their families have accessible healthcare in the event they contract COVID-19.”

To help connect employers with future employees, OESC is hosting two job fairs this week in Oklahoma City. On Wednesday, The Oklahoman is hosting its own job fair at the State Fairgrounds from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. That event features 45 companies from a diverse array of industries that are looking for workers.

$1,200 to go back to work: Oklahoma is offering incentive to a limited number of unemployed workers

Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks during a press conference to announce at $1200 return to work incentive for unemployed Oklahomans at Freymiller Trucking in Oklahoma City, Okla. on Monday, May 17, 2021.
 (Photo: CHRIS LANDSBERGER/THE OKLAHOMAN)

Erica Hering, owner of Ralph’s Packing in Perkins, has experienced the workforce shortage first hand. To run the 35,000-square-foot meat processing facility, she needs 45 employees.

“For the last three and a half months, I’ve been running it with 35 employees,” she said. “I have an additional 12,000 square feet coming online in a month and a half; it’s going to take eight more employees to run that part of the business.”

Another business struggling to find employees is Acme Engineering and Manufacturing in Muskogee. Brian Lanham, executive vice president of manufacturing  and operations, said he needs to hire 30 people.

More: Major business group calls for ending $300 federal bonus in unemployment checks, blaming it for weak April job gains

“We’ve been to job fairs. We hire staffing agencies. The real issue is just there’s no candidates, and it’s real. There’s no candidates,” Lanham said. “Thirty-five years I’ve been in the factory — never in my life have I seen it like this today.” 

The service industry is also facing its own challenge finding a workforce that’s ready and able to earn a paycheck. An April U.S. Census survey reported more than a third of small businesses in hospitality and food services were struggling to fully staff up. 

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