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(The Center Square) – Oklahomans who have gone back to work since the COVID-19 pandemic could be eligible for a $1,200 back-to-work incentive.

"Oklahoma businesses were hit extremely hard by the pandemic and eventually faced an unprecedented labor shortage," Shelley Zumwalt, executive director of Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, told The Center Square. "When the return-to-work incentive was announced in late May, there were nearly 200,000 employable Oklahomans who had not returned to the workforce."

Despite this, many industries were able to hire only 50% of the workforce needed to run their businesses. Zumwalt said the state determined that the labor shortage was created by supplemental federal unemployment benefits which, many times, resulted in a greater payout than workers' previous wages.

The National Federation of Independent Business' (NFIB) latest monthly jobs report shows 46% of small business owners across the country have positions they can't fill.

"We believe the incentive can help people who haven't returned to work because they're caring for young children or older family members," Jerrod Shouse, NFIB Oklahoma state director, told The Center Square. "It's too soon to know what impact ending the federal unemployment supplement is having, but we're hopeful it will encourage more people to re-enter the workforce."

To qualify, Oklahomans need to have left an unemployment insurance program and to have worked six consecutive weeks of either one full-time or two part-time positions of 32 hours or more. Pay stubs will need to be submitted through the portal. The system will give immediate feedback about qualifying or if there are errors within the application.

The duration of the program is through Sept. 4, or until 20,000 people have received the incentive, whichever comes first.

Supplemental unemployment insurance in Oklahoma ended June 27.

"The state is focused on doing what is best for Oklahomans," Zumwalt said. "As we emerge from the pandemic, it is important we continue to focus on building back our economy and doing what we can to get Oklahomans back to work, which is good for all Oklahomans."