- On May 19, Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office announced they would begin serving and enforcing evictions starting tomorrow
- Oklahoma courts that hear evictions have been shut down except for emergency hearings since March
- The State of Oklahoma has had issues with financial assistance throughout the COVID-19 lockdown that are adding to concerns of a wave of evictions
- Robin Roberson, director of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, resigned from her position last week amidst growing issues with financial aid
As states across America begin to ease restrictions meant to prevent transmission of COVID-19, people are beginning to see the economic damage that will be left behind. Some in Oklahoma will be seeing the economic damage first-hand as soon as tomorrow as the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office prepares to begin serving and enforcing judicial eviction orders.
The OCSO made a post to their Facebook page on May 19 announcing that judicial eviction orders will begin being served and the sheriff’s office will be enforcing evictions as of May 26. “We understand how tough times are currently for many as a result of the health crisis the past few months,” the post reads. It continues, “but we must enforce orders issued by the courts.” According to the OCSO, once the tenants are served with the eviction order they have 48 hours to leave the property.
The post has been receiving an overall negative response from social media users. It has has been shared over 4,000 times and currently has over 9,000 comments. OCSO ended the post with, “We will be compassionate, and respectful during scheduled evictions. We are hopeful that everyone issued an eviction will be able to make living arrangements.” Many social media users saw the post and willingness to enforce evictions directly after the COVID-19 lockdown as anything but “compassionate” or “respectful.”
Oklahoma county courts suspended the majority of their activities in mid-March until earlier this month. The county courts handle all civil and most criminal cases across Oklahoma. This meant almost all eviction hearings were postponed until now. The Oklahoma Supreme Court issued a follow-up order on March 27 allowing courts to hear emergency hearings. The order also gave local courts the ability to decide what constituted an emergency.
So far Oklahoma has confirmed 5,950 COVID-19 cases and 311 deaths. Oklahoma County has the highest number of cases, claiming 1,087 cases and 49 deaths. According to Governor Kevin Stitt, in the first week of May that ended on May 8, out of 25,501 tests 676 new cases were reported. The week prior, ending on May 1, there were 627 new cases reported out of 17,030 tests. Oklahoma is currently in phase two of its reopening, with June 1 being the initial goal of entering into phase three.
On Wednesday, Oklahoma officials announced 13 weeks of extended unemployment benefits. Those eligible can now file for benefits on the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission’s website. The federal Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program has been set in place for those who have exhausted regular benefits. Anyone eligible would receive additional benefits for the period of March 29, 2020, through the week ending December 26, 2020. Secretary for Digital Transformation David Ostrowe told KOCO News 5, “The online application is up and running. Individuals should log in to their ui.ok.gov account and follow the instructions to apply for PEUC relief.”
While future benefits were announced, it was also reported this week that Oklahoma’s unemployment agency currently has a backlog of over 45,000 unfinished or unpaid claims. That number only accounts for the approved eligible claims. According to The Oklahoman, OESC has denied 199,627 claims for being ineligible. That is around 47% of every claim made since the COVID-19 related unemployment spike in March. Reasons for being denied included people being fired or quitting and employers protesting for other reasons. Those denied were told to file a federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims, however, more than 58% of the 31,000 PUA claims have been denied.
The U.S. Department of Labor reported 23,880 new unemployment claims in Oklahoma over the week ending on May 16. Two weeks prior, close to 94,000 unemployment claims were made in Oklahoma. The number of new unemployment claims may have dropped but it remains roughly 20 times higher than before the pandemic. Frustrated citizens protested at the Oklahoma Capitol last Monday saying the unemployment system needs to be fixed. Officials claim a big factor causing delays in payments is fraud and people incorrectly filling out applications. It was recently discovered that Oklahoma was one of the possibly many states that fell victim to a group of Nigerian scammers.
According to the U.S. Secret Service, a very well-organized Nigerian fraud ring made fake unemployment claims in Oklahoma and at least six other states. “It is extremely likely every state is vulnerable to this scheme and will be targeted if they have not been already,” the Secret Service said in an alert sent to law enforcement officials across America. Oklahoma and other states were warned the potential losses could be hundreds of millions of dollars. OESC decided to turn over control of its information technology services to another state agency following a 4-1 vote. The vote placed the control of the commission’s IT under the Office of Management and Enterprise Services. OMES was already assisting OESC, so the change “streamlines the activities they’re currently already doing and removes any type of potential roadblocks that we’re getting with the internal IT staff,” Ostrowe said to The Oklahoman.
Oklahomans claim there are other problems as well. Such as the OESC website not functioning properly. Many users have reported technical glitches on the site and a generally confusing layout. Users have claimed they do not know where to even report any glitches as they find them. As the Oklahoma welfare system struggles to handle the influx of new unemployment claims, Robin Roberson, the director of OESC, resigned from her position last week, effective immediately. “I understand the frustration of the commissioners and the administration,” Roberson said. OESC officials confirmed Roberson’s resignation but have not yet said if there will be an executive session to replace her position.
Despite the issues with Oklahoma’s financial assistance, the OCSO will be moving forward with evictions. Mark Myers, the Public Information Director with the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office, told KFOR, “We’re going to start serving those this week, and then we’re going to give folks until next Tuesday to leave the premises.” The OCSO currently has about 20 evictions waiting to be served. Before COVID-19, the OCSO served between 900 and 1,200 evictions per month. While there are concerns of a spike in homeless numbers across the country, Myers says the sheriff’s office has no choice but to serve the court issued evictions. Myers did say some evictions are from renters not paying before COVID-19, but many are recent.
Since March 15, Oklahoma has seen 1,668 eviction notices and close to 300 foreclosures. Nearly 400 of the evictions are in Oklahoma County. Jerod Shadid, a program planner for Oklahoma City Homeless Services, has a valid concern of a significant increase in the city’s homeless population when the dust settles from the COVID-19 lockdown. The current homeless population in Oklahoma City is around 1,500 but shelters are running out of space. If 300 people end up homeless Shadid is concerned there will be nowhere for them to go. Oklahoma is currently set to distribute over $1 billion in federal funds from the CARES Act with $1.4 million already given to Shadid and Homeless Services for eviction prevention. Shadid has doubts the funding will be enough as the issue looks to be long-term.
The Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency is currently trying to get through a waiting list for renters’ assistance. More than 7,700 claims are currently on a waiting list in Oklahoma County. OHFA is looking at over 16,000 claims across the state and says it can only assist around 10,000 at any given time.