Posted April 11, 20204:37 pm
The $2.2 trillion stimulus plan passed by Congress includes expanded unemployment benefits for workers and money for those typically ineligible for benefits. But the state says it isn’t in position yet to process claims under the relief package.
In normal times, Diana Fiore of Mayfield Heights wouldn’t qualify for unemployment benefits under Ohio’s rules.
Fiore, 39, lost her job as a nail technician after the northeastern Ohio salon where she worked was closed because of the coronavirus outbreak. Her part-time job, though, doesn’t pay enough to meet the $269-a-week minimum requirement the state has set to collect benefits, so her application was denied.
She said friends have been denied benefits for the same reason.
“I work minimum hours during the week, but the government also takes out taxes on me,” she said. “Should there be these rules and stipulations? It’s heartbreaking.″
The good news for Fiore and others like her is that help is on the way. The bad news is that the state isn’t ready to start handing out money to workers who desperately need it.
The $2.2 trillion relief package passed by Congress makes low-wage workers such as Fiore eligible for benefits. It also will help other workers typically ineligible for help, including the self-employed contract workers and “gig″ workers such as ride-share drivers.
On top of the state unemployment benefit, $380 a week on average, the legislation extends the length of time that recipients can receive benefits up to 39 weeks and gives them an additional $600 a week beyond their regular benefit.
“This is going to provide significant help when we are finally able to see it fully implemented,” said Zach Schiller, research director at liberal-leaning Policy Matters.
The problem is that the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, overwhelmed by a deluge of claims from people who have been laid off because of the coronavirus outbreak, is unable to process claims yet under the federal relief package that would benefit Fiore and other workers.
The state is contracting with a vendor to build a new system to handle these claims and comply with guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor that was issued last Sunday.
JFS says it doesn’t know when the new system will be ready, only that it is working as fast as possible. Benefits will be awarded retroactively.
“As soon as that system is ready to accept new applications, we will inform folks how to apply,” spokesman Bret Crowe said.
The state also plans to revamp its website to incorporate information on pandemic-related claims. Meanwhile, it continues to struggle under the avalanche of claims it already has received.
In the three-week period that ended last Saturday, Ohio has received 696,519 claims for benefits. That’s twice the number of claims it handled for all of 2019.
So far, it has paid $124 million in benefits to 195,000 people.
To handle the influx of claims, JFS has bolstered its staff to handle calls and has expanded hours of operation. Its call center is now operating seven days a week and it has about 1,000 staff members taking calls.
It also has added computer servers and other hardware.
Other states have had trouble handling the surge in claims. In Florida, workers, some wearing masks, lined up this week to get paper applications for benefits as the state struggled to handle online claims.
Ohio workers say they struggle to get through to anyone at JFS, and when they get email from the state they can’t open it. JFS blamed the email issue on the high claims volume.
“It’s really unfortunate because people desperately need this money,” Schiller said. “Car payments, rent, utility bills. The system was inadequate and under-invested in. It was allowed to get to a level that should never be permitted.”
The additional $600 a week is meant to cover additional wages for workers who are being told to stay home for now when, in normal times, they would be out looking for a new job, Schiller said.
“It’s so, so sad,” Fiore said. “It’s’a scary thing we’re gong through. I hope we’re all going to recover from this. Unemployment was supposed to be a simple thing, and people are still not getting it.″
While workers wait for the state to handle claims, they need to be talking to landlords, food banks and others to tide themselves over until benefits arrive, said Mason Pesek, staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.
Pesek said he anticipates his office ramping up to help people who have been denied benefits.
“It is such an unpredictable time,” he said. “The state is trying to implement these programs as quickly as possible.″