Area residents struggle with ‘overloaded’ unemployment system

Ohio’s unemployment system is overwhelmed with new claims amid the coronavirus pandemic, leaving people such as Helen Shedd in a “never-ending, vicious circle.”

Shedd was laid off from Taylor Communications on March 30 because of COVID-19, she says, and attempted to apply for unemployment. But the system wants her to use an email address that she used when she was briefly on unemployment in 2011. The email address no longer exists, so she has to call the agency to change it.

“I keep trying to get through to somebody on the phone because that’s my only option,” she said. “I’ve tried first thing in the morning. I’ve tried numerous times throughout the day.”

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The system won’t even put her on hold, she says.

“A recording comes on and says, ‘Unfortunately our phone lines are basically inundated right now and you might want to try to call back later.’ Then it hangs up on you,” she said.

“I am at the point now that I have the mindset I’m going to have to wait until June…. That looks like how long I’m going to have to wait to get through,” she said. “I’ve been sitting here all morning trying to figure out how I’m going to make it.”

Shedd is far from alone.

“The system is overloaded,” said Ohio Department of Job and Family Services spokesman Bret Crow.

Nearly 700,000 Ohioans have filed new claims in the past three weeks, nearly twice the number that applied the entire year of 2019. Over the past three weeks, the state has distributed more than $124 million to more than 195,000 claimants.

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“We understand and appreciate (applicants’) frustration, and we appreciate their patience and we’re working as hard as we can to process their claims as quickly as we can,” Crow said.

Ninety-seven percent of claims are filed online, so the agency had to increase its systems’ bandwidth from handling 1,200 connections at once to handling 24,000. But the system is still sluggish, so the agency suggests people try to log on at odd hours.

Other common issues they are seeing include missing documentation and mismatched social security numbers slowing down claims.

Millions of phone calls

Not everyone has access to a computer, however. The Montgomery County Job Center this week shut down the computers it usually makes available for people to apply for unemployment. Goodwill Easter Seals has 18 computers available for the public — spread out to allow social distancing — at its offices at 660 S. Main St. in Dayton.

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Goodwill also set up two phone numbers: (937) 528-6430 and (937) 528-6301 to help people with applying online, though they can’t handle in-depth unemployment questions.

Many still need to call Ohio Unemployment to apply for benefits or if they run into problems. The agency has received more than 8 million calls since March, up from 180,000 in February. Their call center staff went from 42 people before the pandemic to more than 1,100 as of this week.

Crow said the average wait time on a call is 40 minutes. But like Shedd said, the system can’t get everyone into the queue.

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Angela Worley, who lost her job as a full-time substitute teacher at Dayton Public Schools when the state shut down all the schools on March 16, has had to overcome multiple hurdles applying online — having to reset her PIN, missing information she didn’t realize was necessary — only to get a notice saying she was denied.

But she can’t open the message, or get through to anyone for an explanation on why it was denied.

“I’m not a CPA, I’m not a bureaucrat,” said the single mother. “They know I’m not working because they say we can’t, but what am I supposed to do?”

The message Worley can’t open shows up in the system as a red envelope. Crow said they are aware that their system is generating messages days before they can be opened.

So that people aren’t penalized for having a hard time getting through, state officials say payments will be retroactive to when someone became eligible for unemployment, not based on when the application comes in. But people the Dayton Daily News interviewed say that’s little consolation as their bills pile up now.

The state has waived some rules to make it easier for people to get and keep unemployment. During the declared emergency, the requirement that an unemployment recipient actively seek work is waived. Federal rules are also adding $600 a week to unemployment payments through July, though it’s unclear when Ohio will be able to start paying out the extra funds.

Self-employed, contractors ‘getting nothing’

While some people are having a hard time getting through the system, others are in a holding pattern waiting to become eligible for unemployment.

Zo Kerns owns the Impressions Created hair salon in Wilmington, which was closed March 18 along with all hair salons in the state. She and the six stylists who rent booths in her salon wouldn’t traditionally qualify for unemployment but will be eligible under federal legislation passed in response to the health crisis.

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Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said this week that Ohio has to create a new system to process self-employed people and independent contractors, and that system should up running by mid-May. State officials say payments will be retroactive to when someone became eligible.

“I’ve been out of work since March 18. My rent is high and I still have all my other bills at the shop,” Kerns said. “I guess something is better than nothing but right now we’re getting nothing.”


Expanded call center hours

Those without internet access can call (877) 644-6562 (OHIO-JOB) from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays, and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sundays.

Tips for filing for unemployment

- File online, ideally during off-peak hours.

- If you apply online, and it seems like the little circle is spinning for a long time, please resist the urge to click again. Let it process.

- If you get error messages, try clearing your history/cache.

- Do not hit the “back” button on your browser.

- Take advantage of the FAQ sheets available at unemployment.ohio.gov. More helpful tips can also be found there.

- For fastest processing, choose to receive correspondence by email.

- For fastest payment, choose to receive payments via direct deposit.

Source: Ohio Department of Job and Family Services