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When Gov. Kevin Stitt announced in May that he would cut expanded federal unemployment benefits intended to help workers who lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic, he said ending the payments would push more people back to work.

The federally-funded benefits provided unemployed workers with an extra $300 per week and extended benefits to gig-workers and others who would not ordinarily qualify, as well as extended the time period workers could receive payments.

The additional benefits were supposed to run through Sept. 6, but Stitt chose to end the programs more than two months early in a move he said would help ease labor shortages in the state.

But Oklahoma already had the 12th lowest unemployment rate in the nation in May when Stitt announced his decision. And some people claim their inability to re-enter the workforce has nothing to do with getting an unemployment check, including one woman who sued over the curtailed payments. The case is now on appeal at the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Plaintiffs are seeking retroactive payments for Oklahoma workers who saw their unemployment benefits cut.

Seeking to unravel the mystery of the missing Oklahoma workers, The Frontier fact checked claims about the state’s unemployment rate and labor shortages using state and federal unemployment data, studies by economists and interviews with state officials.

Claim: Expanded unemployment benefit programs created in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic have led to a labor shortage and disincentivized workers from re-entering the job market.

Source: Gov. Kevin Stitt has made that claim to support his decision to end additional federal unemployment benefits early. “The federal government has created an incentive to stay at home instead of getting back into the workforce,” Gov. Kevin Stitt is quoted in a KFOR story dated May 17.

Fact check: Mostly false

Federal labor statistics, and a study by economists from several universities including Harvard and Columbia indicate states that ended additional benefits early had a minimal impact on employment levels.

Oklahoma saw a 0.2 percent decline in unemployment in July after cutting supplemental unemployment programs.

A recent analysis by payroll firm UKG also found that states that eliminated expanded unemployment payments early actually saw their labor markets grow more slowly than states that retained the benefits.

The university economists studied 22 of the 26 states that ended additional pandemic unemployment programs early and found employment rates among people who received the pandemic payments in April were only slightly higher in August compared to states that continued the supplemental payments.

In fact, states that retained the payments had the fastest rates of job growth in August.

“The labor market didn’t pop after you kicked these people off,” Michael Stepner, a University of Toronto economist said in an interview with the New York Times. “Most of these people are not finding jobs, and it’s going to take them a long time to get their earnings back.”

While many employers have complained of difficulties finding workers, economists say there are many contributing factors to labor shortages, including ongoing spikes in new COVID-19 cases, inconsistent in-person classes in some school systems, and people who decided to make career changes during the pandemic. In addition, the pandemic spurred about 2 million more people to enter retirement than expected, according to data from The New School’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis.

-Ben Felder and Clifton Adcock

Claim: Oklahoma’s labor participation rate is below the national average.

Source: The conservative think tank the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs made this claim in an Aug. 19 article: “Another matter that may affect the state’s economic rebound is recent litigation challenging Gov. Kevin Stitt’s decision to end the expanded unemployment benefit program. With Oklahoma’s labor participation rate still below the national average, continuation of this program would move the state in the wrong direction.”

Fact check: True but misleading

Oklahoma’s labor force participation rate, which measures the share of the workforce that is working or actively seeking work, was 60.5 percent in August compared to the national rate of 61.7 percent.

But by the time Stitt ended expanded unemployment payments at the end of June 2021, Oklahoma’s labor force participation rate had already recovered to above pre-pandemic levels at 60.7 percent in June, compared with 60.6 percent in February 2020.

While Oklahoma has seen a strong recovery, the national labor force participation is still 1.7 percentage points lower than before the pandemic, according to economists from the Oklahoma City branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

“This means not only are there considerably fewer unemployed workers in Oklahoma actively looking for work than in most other states, but there also are fewer people “on the sidelines” who have stopped looking for work,” economists Chad Wilkerson and Courtney Shupert wrote in a Sept. 7 article in The Oklahoma Economist.

The article notes that while labor force participation is up in the state, there are still 4.5 percent fewer people working in Oklahoma than a year ago. There could be many reasons for this discrepancy. Some people who worked two jobs before the pandemic could have quit one gig, while others moved out of state, or simply retired.

​​-Brianna Bailey and Clifton Adcock

Claim: People are leaving low-wage service jobs for better paying positions in the medical marijuana industry.

Source: Rep. Judd Strom, R-Copan is quoted in a Sept. 5 story in the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise claiming low-wage workers are finding “better jobs” in Oklahoma’s medical marijuana industry.

“When you see the Help Wanted signs, consider the idea that they’re not there because people don’t want to work anymore,” he wrote. “They’re there because the people that left those jobs found a better job.”

Fact Check: Mixed

It’s true that Oklahoma’s restaurant industry is still recovering from the pandemic.

After the first few months of 2021, the restaurant industry was still down about 8,600 jobs when compared to pre-COVID-19 employment numbers, according to data from the Oklahoma Department of Commerce.

But the state does not have a way to track detailed employment information for Oklahoma’s medical marijuana industry. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t track cannabis industry jobs because marijuana is still illegal on the federal level, said Amy Blackburn, spokeswoman for the state Department of Commerce.

But there’s no doubt the state’s cannabis industry has boomed since Oklahoma voters authorized medical marijuana in 2018. Of the roughly 12,500 medical marijuana facilities and grow operations in the state, about 2,000 are dispensaries, according to The Oklahoman.

There have been anecdotal reports of workers leaving restaurant jobs for the medical marijuana industry because of better pay and working conditions. But there is currently no official state data available on where employees that now work in the medical marijuana industry were previously employed, Blackburn said.

“I’ve heard people say that, but we don’t have any way to prove or disprove that,” said Jim Hopper, president of the Oklahoma Restaurant Association.

-Kayla Branch

Rating system:

True: A claim that is backed up by factual evidence

Mostly True: A claim that is mostly true but also contains some inaccurate details

Mixed: A claim that contains a combination of accurate and inaccurate or unproven information

True but misleading: A claim that is factually true but omits critical details or context

Mostly False: A claim that is mostly false but also contains some accurate details

False: A claim that has no basis in fact

The Frontier is a nonprofit, independent news source based in Tulsa. Frontier content is republished in The Transcript through a special content agreement. For more information on The Frontier, visit readfrontier.org.

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