On April 10, 2020, I lost my job. On Feb. 12, I finally received unemployment benefits.
It took 10 months, dozens of phone calls — and one fortuitous email exchange — before I managed to secure payment for the five weeks when I was jobless last spring.
During hours on hold, listening to elevator music through my earbuds, I thought about how lucky I was. I had found a new job, here at Crain’s. I lived in a two-income household. I had the luxury of making those calls with few disruptions.
I wondered how many people had given up, defeated by a bureaucratic, overburdened system while juggling remote school for their children or caring for vulnerable relatives during a global pandemic.
During a recent phone conversation, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services told me my experience wasn’t the norm.
“Your case is a little untypical,” Thomas Betti said.
But in late February, as Ohio approached the one-year anniversary of its first detected case of COVID-19, there still were 601 unresolved unemployment claims from March 2020, he said. The state had 135 pending claims from April, the month when my job was eliminated during broad newsroom cuts at The Plain Dealer. Over 2,000 claims dating from May through August haven’t been settled.
Many of those requests, for traditional unemployment, are in limbo because the state is waiting for additional documents from applicants, Betti said.
He could not provide figures on long-outstanding claims under the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which broadened the pool of eligible applicants to include self-employed people, independent contractors and other workers who, in normal times, would not qualify for unemployment insurance. Those numbers, he said, are skewed due to fraud.
The PUA pool is where I ended up, despite the fact that I’d held the same job since 2007.
My problem? I had a baby in early 2019. After eight weeks of “disability” and four weeks of vacation, I spent the rest of the year on unpaid maternity leave. I returned to work in January 2020 and was laid off 12 weeks later.
Ultimately, staying home with my daughter made me ineligible for benefits — though it took me three months, an appeal and frequent calls before a representative told me that I was certain to be denied.
She counseled me to apply for PUA but cautioned that the state’s system would not let me backdate my request to April. The department’s technical services arm would have to adjust my account to let me file claims.
So in early July, I applied through the PUA program and sent an email to the address for backdating queries. Then I waited. And waited.
The state deemed me eligible for $189 a week, the minimum amount Ohio offers. The federal government would tack on $600 a week, under the CARES Act relief law. But nothing happened.
When I called the PUA phone line to check in, the people who answered were kind, sympathetic — and unable to help.
They couldn’t offer a time line. They couldn’t talk to anyone tasked with backdating claims. One woman told me I could send a single follow-up email — nothing more, as the backdating staff didn’t want repeat inquiries.
Another representative told me to call more often. Then she acknowledged that might be a waste of time.
Several call-center workers stressed that I should keep my account current by filing ongoing claims. (That wasn’t accurate, a supervisor recently said.) So every week, I logged into the portal and answered the same set of questions, explaining that I was working full-time but waiting on months-old benefits.
“From April to December, there were many people that were in your situation,” Betti told me. “The system didn’t quite fit their parameters, and it required a real person to touch it. And we struggled with that last piece because of demand and volume.”
The process felt futile, the conversations farcical.
I understood why other applicants had flocked to social media, to unofficial helplines on Facebook and Reddit, for clarity. Close to 11,000 people have joined a private Facebook group for jobless Ohioans. Last week, there were 74,000 subscribers on a nationwide Reddit forum devoted to unemployment.
“The last time I received payment was back in July!” one recent comment on Facebook reads. “July 5, to be exact, and I’ve called a hundred times. … I’m grabbing at straws here as I haven’t been paid since July and I could cry. What do I do???”
Before the pandemic, Ohio’s unemployment office received 20,000 weekly calls. That volume spiked to 500,000 calls during the first week after the statewide lockdown began. Since mid-March of last year, the customer service center has received more than 20 million calls, Betti said.
“All we can say is that we understand, and we’re listening, and we’re sorry,” he said of the long hold times and obstructions that some applicants have encountered.
Officials have hired and trained staff, but it’s still a struggle to keep up. The department has been wrangling with an antiquated computer system; adjusting to the PUA program; and reacting to 11th-hour moves by the federal government, which only extended temporary relief programs in late December, after those programs lapsed.
There’s another expiration date looming in mid-March for enhanced federal benefits.
And the state, like many others, has been contending with fraud. Organized scammers flocked to the PUA program last year, using stolen identities to file claims. In recent weeks, those swindlers have turned their attention to the traditional unemployment system. Fraudulent claims are causing snarls for legitimate applicants, victims, businesses and public officials.
More than 7,300 employers have filed reports of potential ID theft related to 21,000 records uploaded during the past six weeks, Betti said. More than 154,000 individuals, almost 20% of them from out of state, have submitted reports of suspected fraud through an online portal.
Ohio has red-flagged about 7% of traditional unemployment claims and a whopping 56.8% of PUA claims as potentially suspect. In December alone, the state identified $330 million in fraudulent PUA program overpayments.
If my claim ever was put on hold due to fraud concerns, nobody told me. Betti didn’t have access to my file. From my side of the portal, my case simply languished for months.
In early February, though, a friend who experienced her own unemployment challenges gave me an email address for a supervisor. I reached out by email. The supervisor answered. And within a few hours, she had fixed my problem. I was able to submit weekly claims for April and May.
A few days later, my unemployment compensation appeared in my bank account. Along with an extra payment of $1,620 in federal assistance for six weeks in August and September — when I was working full-time and, at the call center’s direction, submitting weekly records to the state showing that I no longer qualified for aid.
I told Betti about the baffling payment, which I notified the department about immediately. He said it sounded like an error in the system.
“You have a unique situation going into it and a unique situation going out of it,” he said of my unemployment saga.
I spent most of a year seeking money from the state. Now, I’m trying to give it back.