Oklahoma has paid out more than $575 million in unemployment claims so far this year, a record as the number of jobless in the state remains near a 21-year high, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission said Wednesday.
Spokesman John Carpenter said that last week, the state paid $23.72 million in benefits on 74,814 jobless claims, down slightly from the week before when it paid out $23.77 million on 74,845 claims _ a new weekly record.
The state paid just $182.6 million in unemployment benefits in all of 2008.
"We certainly are paying our more than we've ever had to before," Carpenter said. He said the $575 million paid so far in 2009 represents money from the state's unemployment trust fund that is funded by employers and does not include extended unemployment benefits paid by the federal government.
"It's certainly a symptom of how bad things are out there that benefits have had to be extended like this," Carpenter said.
The state's jobless rate for November was 7 percent, down from October when unemployment was 7.3 percent _ the highest since January 1988.
Jobless workers can collect up to $409 a week in benefits from the trust fund for up to 26 weeks, Carpenter said. Federally funded unemployment benefits can extend payments for more than 40 additional weeks, he said.
Although the state is paying out more unemployment benefits than ever before, the unemployment trust fund is far from depleted, Carpenter said. On Nov. 30, the fund contained $522 million, he said. On the same day last year, the fund contained $841 million.
"We're definitely losing ground," Carpenter said. "It started out very healthy. We have done a good job here in Oklahoma in protecting that money."
The state's burgeoning jobless rate could grow in the coming months as more workers are laid off from struggling businesses and state agencies hit hard by a $729 million revenue shortfall for the fiscal year that ends June 30, said Sen. Harry Coates, R-Seminole, chairman of the Senate Business and Labor Committee.
"It's got me concerned," Coates said. "We may see a tremendous increase in unemployment for a period of time.
"For many Oklahomans it's not going to be a very good Christmas."
Coates said his family's construction business, Coates Roofing Co., has felt the downturn in the economy and has little work waiting for January.
"This is the first time I can remember never having any projects," he said. "We, too, are probably going to have to lay off employees." The company employs about 120 people.
"We were so insulated for so long. We were kind of the last to get hit," Coates said.
Oklahoma's economy remained robust as the national economy went into a deep slump in 2008, thanks in part to high oil and natural gas prices that kept the state's energy industry active. But prices have fallen sharply since then, and activity in the state's oil patch has slowed.
State government agencies may be forced to lay off some of their 37,000 workers in the coming months to cope with the budget cuts ordered because of the revenue shortfall, Coates said.
"We're going to exacerbate the problem," he said. "It's going to compound the situation. I'm really concerned."