A $600 additional weekly bump to unemployment checks added by federal lawmakers finally will start going out next week, Ohio officials said, but people continue to experience problems accessing and understanding the state’s unemployment system.
The Dayton Daily News took questions from readers to Ohio Department of Job and Family Services officials and other experts to get answers.
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The most common questions from readers concerned the $600 additional benefit and when it would kick in. State officials say payments going out next week will include a lump sum retroactive through April or the date someone became eligible. The extra payments will continue through July for those who stay on unemployment.
Here are the remaining questions.
Question: Can I get unemployment assistance if my hours were cut but I’m still working?
Tracy DeBault and about 40 coworkers at the company she works at in Sharonville had their hours cut by 40 percent during the pandemic. She said they were told to apply for unemployment, but when she did she was denied.
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She has called Ohio Unemployment dozens of times and on the rare occasion she gets through, she’s told something different. The state workers tell her to keep applying and maybe she will qualify under changes being put in place.
“They just keep telling us, ‘Apply. Be patient. Apply. Be patient.’ You just get tired of hearing it,” she said.
She expressed gratitude that at least she could pay her bills this month with the federal stimulus check, but she can’t make it forever on part-time hours. “When I get bills for next month, I’m going to be hurting really, really badly,” she said.
Answer: Not always.
State officials say you can qualify for traditional unemployment benefits if your pay was reduced below what you would get on unemployment, which is essentially half of your original pay with limits based on earnings and household size. People who are partially employed and qualify for benefits will also get the extra $600 weekly benefit through July.
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DeBault hours were cut, but not enough for her to qualify for unemployment. Another program could help if her employer applies for it.
Ohio offers a program called SharedWork Ohio that lets employers cut their employees’ hours in a uniform manner and supplements their pay with unemployment income on a prorated basis.
That employee would also get the additional $600 a week through July.
An employer must apply for the SharedWork Ohio program. More than 400 employers are on SharedWork Ohio plans currently, representing nearly 12,000 workers. Another 103 plans, with a total of more than 4,200 employees, are pending state approval.
Question: What about part-time employees, contractors and others who don’t qualify for unemployment?
“Many of my co-workers are working part-time and do not get paid that well. We have filed for unemployment but have obviously been denied. I have read conflicting articles that say those not making the average $269 a week during the base period will be covered under the CARES Act and then I have also read where they won’t be covered,” Lori Kutcher asked in an email.
“A lot of us are in limbo right now and would love to know what’s going on!”
Answer: The state is working on it.
Traditional unemployment only applies to people who worked at least 20 weeks in covered employment during a certain period of time with an average weekly wage of $269.
The CARES Act creates a temporary unemployment assistance program for many people who wouldn’t normally qualify. It will pay similar to traditional unemployment — about half of a person’s normal wages — plus $600 a week through July.
These benefits won’t be processed through traditional unemployment, but a separate system the state is still building. That new system is the same that will be used for self-employed workers and contractors.
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State officials said this week they intend to start accepting applications next week, though they might not start processing claims until May 15.
“You cannot apply for this program using the existing online application or by calling our call center,” the state’s website says.
Payments will be retroactive to when someone became eligible, state officials say.
Zach Schiller, research director at Policy Matters Ohio, said the federal legislation opens up the program to basically anyone who had documented employment and lost his or her job because of the coronavirus. Regardless of how much someone earned, the minimum payment is $189 a week, plus $600 a week, through July, under the federal rules.
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“If people have lost their work because of COVID-19 there is a very, very, very good chance they will qualify,” he said.
He said state leaders need to better explain why they haven’t been able to stand up this program as fast as other states, and get information out as soon as possible about the program rules.
QUESTION: Will I qualify for unemployment if I don’t go to work because I don’t feel safe doing so during the pandemic?
A recent Dayton Daily News survey drew more than 200 responses from employees working through the coronavirus pandemic.
Many expressed fear about going to work every day and putting themselves at risk.
ANSWER: No, but maybe with a doctor’s note.
People who simply quit their jobs won’t qualify for unemployment, state officials say.
But employees with health issues who are told to stay home by their doctor may qualify.
“Unemployment benefits will be available for eligible individuals who are requested by a medical professional, local health authority or employer to be isolated or quarantined as a consequence of COVID-19, even if they are not actually diagnosed with COVID-19,” the Ohio Department of Job and Family Service website says.
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Jason Matthews, an unemployment attorney in Dayton, said another federal law effective in April also guarantees two weeks of paid sick leave to people whose doctors direct them to quarantine for their safety. This law applies to people who don’t usually have sick leave through their employer, he said.
Question: If I return to work before my unemployment claim is paid, will I get anything?
Mary Beth Gouge, owner of Personally Fit personal training center in Kettering, said her 16 full-time and part-time employees are afraid they won’t get their unemployment compensation claims paid before they start back to work. They want to know if they’ll get paid for the month they couldn’t work because gyms were shut down.
“I have been on the ODJFS site daily and on the phone daily, only to show ‘chat busy’ or ‘high number of calls.’ (It) doesn’t matter when you call either. I have been in a pending state since the beginning,” Gouge wrote to the Dayton Daily News. “How can I reassure my employees who haven’t heard anything, when I don’t feel confident either?”
State officials say payments will be retroactive to the date of eligibility. So if someone finds work before their unemployment claim is processed, he or she will still receive their benefit for the period they qualified.
Matthews said he recommends that people who lost income because of the coronavirus apply for unemployment, and if denied, be willing to file an appeal.
“I always recommend that people apply and let unemployment work out the issues,” he said.