There would be just 400 tickets handed out for that day’s event. When those ran out, there would be 400 more for appointments the following day.
“I just didn’t want to be number 803,” Jolley said.
In the four months since the pandemic began, nearly 50 million workers have filed unemployment claims nationwide, a flood that’s overwhelmed some states, freezing antiquated computer systems and jamming websites and phone lines for days. State benefit agencies in some parts of the country have evoked memories of Great Depression bread lines.
Many have been struggling to get their regular unemployment benefits as well as the $600-a-week federal pandemic unemployment assistance passed in March that begins running out for millions of Americans later this week. Congress returned Monday to begin hammering out the details of another massive coronavirus bill, with Republicans assembling a $1 trillion package that probably will extend but reduce the size of that benefit. Democrats are backing a more wide-ranging $3 trillion relief bill passed by the House in May.
In Oklahoma, one of the poorest states, unemployment — which reached a record 14.7 percent in April — has pushed many to the point of desperation, with savings depleted, cars repossessed and homes sold for cash.
Even though the unemployment rate dropped to 6.6 percent in June, the backlog has created unprecedented delays. Oklahoma had approved 235,000 of about 590,000 filed claims by June 21 — a total $2.4 billion payout, far more than in previous years. About 6,000 state claims are pending.
The Oklahoma Employment Security Commission staff has tried to combat the delays by holding mega-processing events at large arenas in Oklahoma City and Tulsa this month, with masks and social distancing required. So far, they’ve managed to help 6,200 people.
Jolley’s unemployment claim was approved in March but had been stalled, a problem that hadn’t been fixed after nine phone calls and hours on hold with the OESC.
The 58-year-old single father arrived in the parking lot of the River Spirit Expo center in Tulsa around 9 p.m. on a sultry night with a heat index approaching 100 degrees. The landmark 75-foot statue of the Golden Driller — a nod to Tulsa’s oil and gas hub — towered over one side of the dark parking lot, his face painted over with a surgical mask.
Dozens more sat in the parking lot overnight with Jolley, unable to get their questions answered through the unemployment agency’s overloaded phone system. Some said they had been notified that their claim was denied as fraudulent. Jolley quickly bonded with the woman in the next car over, a manicurist named Cindy La, 60, the two swapping tips on how they thought the event would unfold.
That afternoon, as Jolley gathered up the paperwork he’d need for his claim, he felt a sense of sadness as profound as anything he’d felt since the pandemic began.
“It’s a very dark feeling,” he said. “You just kind of feel like you’re in a boat without a rudder and you’re riding the waves. After all these years you worked hard at your company, tried to be a good guy and be fair to your clients, you just feel like you’re losing control of your future.”
Old computers, new careers
At 4:30 a.m., several OESC staffers emerged from the convention center to hand out the appointment numbers. The process quickly degenerated into a free-for-all, the crowd growing restive, pushing and shoving to get the limited supply of appointment tickets. Jolley moved to the front of the line, trying to protect his new friend, La, by reaching down and plucking two tickets — No. 69 for her and No. 64 for him.
Others were not so lucky. The numbers quickly ran out, and people were told they had to return the following day. Eventually, staffers referred people to the three new events added for the coming week because of the demand.
Ashley Love, 31, a former customer advocate for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, had risen at 4 a.m. to take her 2-year-old daughter to her mother’s home before heading to the convention center, only to be told she had to come back the next day. She was laid off in March, when the pandemic nearly obliterated the travel industry. Her benefits inexplicably stopped four weeks ago, the agency website saying only she was on a “verification hold.”
“It’s appalling, I don’t understand how they can do this to people,” Love said. “One day, I called 15 times in two hours, and they either don’t answer or take your calls and hang up on you.”
Love was getting down to the last she has, having run through $4,000 in savings. Even before her benefits froze, she was getting only about $137 a week, plus $600 a week from the federal government’s pandemic emergency assistance program, due to expire around the end of the month. Her regular monthly bills — rent, car payment, insurance — are $2,091.
She has continued her search for a job, even contemplating whether she should “Find Something New” — as the White House’s new ad campaign suggests — researching how she could get certification to start a career in teaching.
Shelley Zumwalt, the interim director of Oklahoma’s unemployment agency, said the state’s system uses a mainframe computer from 1978 that was quickly overwhelmed by the volume of claims.
“My first day, I sat down with one of the claims agents and said, ‘Show me what you do,’ and a green screen popped up and she pushed F9,” Zumwalt said. “That was the clearest thing to me that I was dealing with a technology that was older than I am.”
She launched the series of more than a dozen mega-events July 1 after several days in June when desperate people began showing up to the OESC office in Oklahoma City and waiting in line with coolers, camp chairs and tents.
“I’m not okay with people having to camp out to get their claims processed,” Zumwalt said.
Some who showed up at the event had received notes from the OESC that they had been approved for unemployment benefits when they hadn’t yet applied, convinced they had been victims of fraud. Zumwalt said that about 90,000 claims have been flagged as fraudulent.
Last month, the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General, working with the OESC, said it had stopped payment on 3,800 unemployment insurance claims, including 1,300 filed from IP addresses in London, saving the state nearly $16 million.
Many real Oklahomans in need of assistance are suffering through the complicated unemployment process, too. The state has rejected more than half of the unemployment claims filed through June 21, some for gig or self-employed workers who must be denied regular unemployment insurance before they can qualify for the federal government’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, Zumwalt said.
Many who showed up at the Tulsa convention center were navigating government assistance for the first time, such as Sarah Miller, 29, a single mother of three who was told not to come back to her job as a nursing home aide after she experienced symptoms consistent with covid-19 in March. Her unemployment claim has been pending since April 12.
“I need this. I need it,” she said. “I’ve never been one to do unemployment, but with all that’s going on, I don’t really have any other option. I have to be home with my kids; I can’t afford to pay a babysitter or do day care. Got to do what I got to do.”
'We're all glitches'
Jolley had time to go home before his 6:30 a.m. appointment, shower and change into cargo shorts and a shirt printed with tiny steaks and barbecues. He was among the first into the cavernous Expo center, where claims seekers sat down in folding chairs six feet apart.
Staffers handed out bottles of water, Kind granola bars and a flier that advertised drive-up distribution at the local food pantry, “Soup’s On at the Community Kitchen.” Jolley tucked the flier along with other documents in a blue folder he labeled “Unemployment.”
As he waited for his name and number to be called, Jolley looked around at the others sitting in their socially distanced chairs and was reminded of the animated Disney movie “Wreck-It Ralph,” which he watches with his 7-year-old, Pearl. In it, Ralph is a lumbering video game villain who hopes to restart his life by helping a video game princess stuck in a computer glitch.
In a way, everyone in this room is a glitch, he said, just like Princess Vanellope in the movie.
“People that are here, we’re all glitches,” he said. “We fell through the cracks. The computer system didn’t work for us.”
Jolley has a degree in petroleum engineering but started Big Guys Inc. advertising in 1995 as a hedge against the ups and downs of the oil market. For a long time, the company provided a good living, even during the 2008 recession. He sells ad space for mom-and-pop businesses — tree trimmers, DUI lawyers — posted in bathrooms in airports, restaurants and concert venues.
“It’s a captive audience with disposable income,” he quipped, that old joke. “Or it was before this.”
He had always thought he would do this until he retired, especially after life dealt him the surprise of Pearl and he became a single dad at 50. Now, he was just hoping his misfortune would be temporary, that business would revive as things normalized, with concerts and other events supposed to restart in Oklahoma in August.
When his name was called, he went behind black curtains where claims agents were working on their ancient computer program. He gave a written summary of his many contacts with the agency to Ashley Testerman, an agent in a black cotton mask.
“I brought a cheat sheet,” he said.
“You have no payments; let’s see if you are in the system,” she said.
In the end, after all that — the numerous phone calls, the hours wasted on hold, the evening spent sleeping in his car — all he needed was a working PIN number, and Jolley was able to file claims for all the weeks he had missed since April.
“I feel so relieved,” he said afterward, joking that he might do a Jed Clampett-like jig in the parking lot on his way out the door. But the joy would be temporary. His last sobering exchange with the claims agent stuck in his mind.
“We don’t know what the future holds,” he had said. “What happens if everything shuts down again?”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.