Ohio unemployment leaders blasted for failures in system

After enduring months of criticism from laid-off workers, leaders with Ohio’s unemployment system this week came under fire by state lawmakers who said it’s outrageous and unacceptable that there’s been so many problems.

Ohio House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Derek Merrin, R-Moncolva, lambasted the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services for what he called broken phone and online systems that laid-off workers must use to apply for jobless benefits.

“We are in year 2020 — how do we not have a phone system that properly works?” Merrin said. “We have a call system where people are losing connection.”

Merrin’s criticism echoed the complaints of countless Miami Valley residents and Ohioans who have grown angry and upset because they could not get unemployment benefits quickly, often citing problems with the application process and an inability to get a hold of call center staff.

“Whenever I called, I was told by recording lines were busy and call back another time,” said Butler County resident James Taylor in written testimony this month. “The recordings did not give me an option to hold.”

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Ohio Department of Job and Family Services Director Kimberly Hall said the unemployment office was overwhelmed by unprecedented call and claims volumes, but it has taken numerous steps to try to fix the issues and improve the system.

“It was never built for the claims volume it is now handling,” she said.

On Wednesday afternoon, Hall testified before the House Ways and Means committee about the unemployment system. Her testimony was part of hearings for Ohio House Bill 614, which seeks to study and reform the state’s unemployment compensation system.

Ohio has processed more than 92% of the more than 1 million claims it has received, Hall said.

But many laid-off residents have contacted the Dayton Daily News with complaints that they could not get through to apply for benefits, sometimes after long waits on hold or repeated disconnections.

Some residents told this newspaper they have called the unemployment office dozens of times or more with no success, while others say the online application system simply did not work.

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Communication to the unemployment office was impossible, and without personal assistance, important questions cannot be asked and answered, said Taylor in his testimony in support of H.B. 614.

Taylor said he filed online, but that felt like being in a “black hole” with no idea where to turn.

“I know steps take time to implement but it is very stressful when an applicant is facing the unknown without support,” said Taylor, whose unemployment claim was denied because he did not make enough money.

Ohio’s unemployment system technology dates back to 2004 and is antiquated and failed to meet the demand caused by this crisis, said Hall.

The department’s call center received about 20,000 calls per week before the pandemic, but that skyrocketed to about 500,000 calls per week in mid-March.

The call center has received more than 7 million calls during the pandemic, which has led to problems, Hall said.

“We quickly learned that if we reduced the number of individuals able to wait in the queue, wait times would be shorter, but more people would be disconnected because of high call volume,” she said. “If we increased the number able to wait in the queue, fewer would be disconnected, but wait times would be longer. Without a large pool of call center agents, this places the agency in an ongoing Catch-22.”

Hall said staff have been able to answer less than 40% of calls, which is unacceptable. But she blamed that on insufficient staffing.

“We have calculated that we would have needed at least 50 times our pre-COVID-19 level of full-time agents to meet the peak volume of calls,” she said.

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When this public health emergency started, the unemployment office had about 550 staff, including 40 full-time agents in the call center, which was adequate to handle the demand before this emergency, Hall said.

But the office reduced staff in recent years, as unemployment fell to historically low levels. In 2009 during the Great Recession, 1,422 people worked in the unemployment office.

Merrin said the department was overwhelmed by calls because the online application system is broken and has not allowed many jobless Ohio in dire straits to apply for benefits they sorely need.

Merrin criticized the unemployment office for not calling unemployment seekers back if they were disconnected and not having voicemail set up to allow callers to leave messages.

He said his and other lawmakers’ voicemails are full of messages from frustrated constituents who could not get a hold of anyone at the call center.

“The Legislature right now is your voicemail system,” he said. “You do have a voicemail — it’s us.”

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In 2018, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services awarded an $86 million contract to overhaul and update the unemployment and other systems. The department’s goal is to have the system ready by 2022.

Merrin questioned why the project will take so long and why Hall didn't push harder to improve the customer experience and unemployment systems when she took over the department in early 2019.

“My question to you, knowing that a solution is a couple of years off, why didn’t you take prudent steps — you and your staff — to at least improve and update the current system that every Ohioan has to live with the next couple of years,” he said.

Hall said the unemployment office has been working hard to catch up and keep up with demand and claims.

The office added claim adjudicators and the call center, which expanded its hours, now has 1,250 full- and part-time staff, she said.

The office added a new feature that allows some callers to schedule a call back time. There is now an online virtual assistant and the office implemented a variety of IT improvements, Hall said.

Hall said the state is working on providing a tool that allows some claimants to file their weekly claims via text on their mobile phones.

Hall said about 7.3% of unemployment claims received since the start of the pandemic are still pending, more than half of which were filed since early May. She estimates there are about 83,200 pending claims.

The vast majority have issues that require investigation, such as identity verification, over payments and prior claim issues, she said.

Earlier this month, multiple people provided testimony in support of H.B. 614 after they say they experienced serious problems with the unemployment system.

Harrison worker Micheall Reed said he has unsuccessfully tried to get a hold of the unemployment office since April 8.

“I go through the prompts, it says ‘we’re extremely busy, try another time,’ and it hangs up,” he said.

Breanna Holland, a 23-year-old Marysville resident, said she spent three weeks trying get reach the unemployment office by phone and through its website after her employer closed and she was put out of work.

“I spent all day everyday calling and calling and calling ODJFS. I could not reach a person. I could not leave a message. There was no call queue,” she said.

Holland said she only got through and started receiving payments after asking her state representative for help.

Rep. John Rogers (D-Mentor-on-the-Lake), the ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee, said the unemployment office has to do a better job communicating with its clients, especially after they weren’t allowed to work because of the government’s orders and lockdown.

“We need to do a better job of responding to people when they look to us for help,” he said.

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