Ohio’s unemployment system is called ‘broken’: Readers want answers

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Caption
Ohio's unemployment system is overwhelmed with applications during the coronavirus epidemic.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Hundreds of thousands of Ohioans are eagerly awaiting the extra $600 a week bump to their unemployment benefits state officials say is coming this week, as hundreds of thousands more are struggling to get anything at all.

The Dayton Daily News is continuing to gather questions from readers about Ohio’s unemployment compensation program, which is straining under the weight of new filings, and working to enact federal changes, after the coronavirus pandemic put people out of work faster than any time in recent history.

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Sandy Beckett was one of several readers wondering if she would qualify for the extra $600 payment because she was on unemployment prior to the pandemic. Beckett was laid off from a lawn-care company in Fairfield in August and filed for unemployment in December.

She said she was in the process of getting hired by another company, but with the pandemic “the process stopped.” The extra money would help tide her over until she gets back to work, she said.

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“I am eager to get back into the workforce and things back as normal as possible,” the 67-year-old said.

The Dayton Daily News confirmed people who were already on unemployment will qualify for the extra $600 payment.

Q: Do I have to apply for the 13-week extension?

If Beckett can’t find a job before her traditional unemployment runs out after 26 weeks, the federal CARES Act created a 13-week extension. But she will have to re-apply, according to the state’s website.

“For those who qualify for regular unemployment benefits, (the extension) will not be automatic,” it says. “Individuals who exhaust their maximum 26 weeks of regular unemployment benefits after March 29 will be able to apply soon for up to 13 weeks of additional payments.”

And the $600 extra is available only through July 25.

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Q: What if my work re-opens but my child’s school and daycare don’t?

The state is creating a new system for people who wouldn’t qualify for traditional unemployment but may be covered by a program created by the CARES Act called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. This assistance could cover many situations that persist after the state lifts restrictions.

Mandi Summers emailed the Dayton Daily News concerned that workplaces will re-open but schools will remain closed the rest of the year and child care centers will limit capacity.

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“If you don’t make that cut or you get put on a waiting list and your employer is requiring you to return to work and you have no child care options, is there any kind of provision for parents that want to work but can’t because they lost their child care to COVID-19?” she wrote.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance will apply to, “those with primary caregiving responsibilities for children or others who are unable to attend school or another facility due to COVID-19,” according to state guidelines.

The assistance pays a similar amount to traditional unemployment, with a minimum payment of $189 a week, plus the extra $600 a week, through July.

Q: Who else will get expanded unemployment?

According to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance will also apply to those who were self-employed, worked part-time, or don’t qualify for traditional unemployment benefits and:

• Can’t reach their place of employment because of quarantine.

• Were advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine.

• Whose place of employment is closed because of COVID-19.

• Were scheduled to start work but who no longer have a job because of COVID-19.

• Have been diagnosed with COVID-19, have a household member who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, or are providing care to a family or household member with COVID-19.

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Q: So what’s taking so long?

People won’t be able to apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance through the traditional program but will have to use a new system the state is building. Ohio officials say they are still on track to start accepting applications for this program this week, though payments might not go out until mid-May.

Meanwhile people applying for traditional unemployment continue to hit roadblocks. Workers for an auto parts manufacturing plant in Eaton say their cases have been pending for weeks and they can’t get through for an explanation.

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A Clermont County man, Kristian Guntzelman, wrote that his wife and son have been trying to file for unemployment for four weeks and face technical problems and the inability to get anyone on the phone for help.

“The system is broken with no way to contact anyone,” he wrote.

Ohio officials say they extended their call center to seven days a week and added more than 1,100 call center staff with plans to launch a virtual call center this week. The state also is asking people to call on different days based on the first letter of their last names.

But state officials say they are dealing with an unprecedented flood of applications with a 16-year-old system that was scheduled to be replaced before the pandemic hit.

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“All eligible Ohioans will receive their unemployment benefits — and any delays in processing their claims will not reduce the amount received,” the agency said in a statement. “ODJFS will not rest until all eligible Ohioans are served.”