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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Oklahoma in the spring of 2020, we couldn’t have known the toll it would take on Oklahomans, our economy and our Tulsa businesses.

It was devastating to watch our neighbors shut down their storefronts and to see our friends and family members lose their jobs.

Now, over a year since the pandemic began, how does our state, and Tulsa, come together to build and foster an even stronger economy?

Our state is leading the way with a multifaceted approach to recover and build our economy stronger than before — one that helps Tulsans and businesses with short-term support, but also provides tools to succeed in the long term. The Oklahoma Employment Security Commission is playing a key role in this effort — placing additional emphasis on re-employment initiatives and programs. To assist those in the Tulsa area who are looking for employment and businesses who are looking for employees, the agency is hosting career fairs across Oklahoma this May, with two at Tulsa Expo Center Thursday and Friday. The event is funded with federal CARES Act money approved by Gov. Kevin Stitt.

In March, 2020, the OESC saw a 1,000% increase in claims compared to January and February. In April, 2020, Tulsa’s unemployment rate reached 15.1%, with nearly 70,000 Tulsans on unemployment benefits.

The agency’s 41-year-old antiquated technology was overwhelmed with the influx of claims. Recognizing the challenges claimants were facing, we hosted safe, in-person unemployment events that helped more than 10,000 people solve issues with their benefits and get one-on-one attention with commission staff.

Surviving the economic toll of the pandemic placed a heavy burden on our state. Federal benefits were integral to protecting the livelihoods of Oklahomans, and OESC played a critical role in distributing benefits from the CARES Act, the Continued Assistance Act and the American Rescue Plan. Since March, 2020, OESC has paid more than $4.8 billion in benefits — more than the past decade combined. Nearly $1 billion went to unemployed Tulsans. We continue to prioritize distributing unemployment benefits.

However, we can’t rely solely on federally funded unemployment benefits to recover fully or grow our economy. On June 1, 2020, Oklahoma reopened, resulting in approximately 100,000 more Oklahomans returning to work than the national average. Although our businesses have safely operated throughout the duration of the pandemic, employers are struggling to fill open positions.

We need a holistic approach to rebuild our economy. OESC does more than distribute unemployment benefits. Our programs to help Oklahomans find employment or receive training for a new career and help employers find employees are critical.

Supporting our workforce remains a top priority for the state of Oklahoma. These re-employment initiatives are intended to stabilize our economy and strengthen it moving forward. The OESC career fairs this month come at no cost to employers and participants. We will continue to provide job seekers and business owners with assistance throughout 2021 and beyond by implementing programs that support a strong network of employment opportunities.

Navigating this pandemic has been the challenge of a lifetime for many Oklahomans. But as we’ve shown throughout our history, Oklahomans are resilient and driven. Together, we will become a true reflection of the Oklahoma Standard and use all the resources available to build an even stronger economy than before the pandemic.

Shelley Zumwalt is the executive director of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission. Jennifer Grigsby is the Oklahoma secretary of economic administration.

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Shelley Zumwalt is the executive director of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission. Jennifer Grigsby is the Oklahoma secretary of economic administration.