State director seeks patience as new jobless benefits are set

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

New PUA claims won’t be processed until third week of January

New federal jobless benefits are coming, but programming state computers to process what’s expected to be a flood of new claims will take time, the director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) cautioned Wednesday.

Kim Henderson, ODJFS director, warned that high claims volume and complex federal requirements will slow the process.

For example, Henderson doesn’t expect the state to be able to process new applications to the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program until the third week of January — and in that case, only for those who have previously been approved for PUA benefits.

Henderson said state staff are working “as quickly as we can.” Benefits will be rewarded retroactively once programming is complete, she also said.

ExploreFrom December: Jobless benefits expiration a concern for Ohioans out of jobs

“Keep in mind that even in normal times, claims processing is not an overnight process,” she said in a Zoom call with media.

The newly extended and amended PUA program will take claims applications until March 13. That program now offers up to 50 weeks of benefits, up from the previous 39 weeks of benefits.

For Ohioans, that means no new applications to the PUA program will be accepted after March 13, Henderson said. But those who have not yet exhausted all their weeks of eligibility — and if they are eligible in the week ending March 13 — will be afforded a “grace” period for applying all the way to April 10, she also said.

A new additional federal benefit of $300 weekly should also be ready by the third week of January for “those already in the system,” she said.

“The components of the extension are complex, and they are complex for us,” Henderson said.

One example of a new rule: Most new claimants for PUA benefits will now have to document their employment, self-employment or “planned commencement of employment or self-employment.” There will be some exceptions.

PUA benefits provide payments to those who are not usually eligible for regular state aid but lose work, through no fault of their own, in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Previously, when PUA was first enacted, the U.S. Department of Labor urged states to let claimants “self-certify” their eligibility and their earnings history, in an attempt to get payments to those citizens quickly.

“Unfortunately, that opened the door to criminal activity,” Henderson said.

The new requirement is an effort to address fraudulent claims happening nationwide, she said.

The economy has struggled anew under a surge of COVID-19 cases in recent months. The pace of hiring has slowed considerably from the summer, and Ohio payrolls are down about 6 percent from a year ago.

To deal with what has been a recent increase in phone calls from Ohioans seeking benefits, Henderson said she hopes to scale the number of ODJFS employees who can take calls up to 1,900 by March.

The department began the pandemic with just over 450 employees taking phone calls.

People who exhaust regular unemployment benefits may be eligible for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC). If they exhaust that , they are potentially eligible for extended benefits. If they exhaust all three programs, they could be eligible for PUA.

The PEUC program now offers up to 24 weeks, instead of the previous 13 weeks. Ohioans can file new applications for those benefits now, Henderson said.

And the “Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation” program now offers $300 a week, down from the previous $600 a week.

Those programs were left in limbo before Congress passed its latest aid package in late December. President Trump signed the package into law Dec. 27.

In the week ending Jan. 2, more than 334,00 Ohioans received unemployment benefits of some kind .

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