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Ohio Grapples with Unemployment System Glitches, Problems

Some applicants said their claim was held up after the state said their Social Security number didn’t match their last name. This included a man who had an existing unemployment account and had filed successfully in the past.

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(TNS) — As Ohio officials say they’re working to scale up the state unemployment system to meet historic demand, Ohioans who are out of work due to state coronavirus closures and looking for help say they’re growing impatient.

Most said they understand the state is struggling with high call volumes — a staggering 855,000 Ohioans have filed for unemployment in the past month — and some said support Gov. Mike DeWine’s decision to close businesses to limit the spread of COVID-19.

But nearly all described the anxiety of not knowing where their claims stood, and anger that state officials weren’t better prepared.

We asked readers to share their stories with the unemployment system. We heard back from dozens, who shared overlapping problems.

As has been well-documented, all said they had trouble even getting placed on hold, much less getting an operator on the phone. A few said they got their claims fixed asking for a Spanish-speaking operator, a popular tip that assumes there may be less competition in that option.

Some said their claim was held up after the state said their Social Security number didn’t match their last name. This included a man who had an existing unemployment account and had filed successfully in the past. It also included women who said they had never been married or otherwise changed their names.

Several described getting forms describing a deadline to fill the information out that arrived in the mail days after the deadline passed.

A few had their claims denied after they said they weren’t seeking work — a holdover from the state’s unemployment work requirements, which have been waived during the coronavirus crisis. (The state is recommending that people answer ‘yes’ to this question, an official said.)

A common issue is that claimants aren’t able to open the electronic messages they receive in their state accounts, including those labeled as having deadlines.

Some said their claims are in limbo, even as people they know who filed at the same time, or filed later, and been accepted. Many described fear, among other emotions.

“It’s really overwhelming, because what if my thing is pending this whole time and it ends up getting denied?” said Nicole O., a Fairview Park resident who didn’t want her last name used in this story. She was laid off from a restaurant serving job on March 18, and is still waiting for her claim to be processed.

“In a way, it’s reassuring because while it’s still pending, that means it hasn’t been denied. I would have zero income,” she said. “That’s really overwhelming.”

It’s become routine for Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, during the state’s daily coronavirus briefings, to field questions from reporters asking about the unemployment system, and to promise the issues will be fixed. On Wednesday, he said a virtual call center will be launched by the end of the week that will help process the extra $600 unemployment benefits included in the federal coronavirus relief act.

Over the past month, the state has paid out $237,043,553.90 in unemployment compensation benefits to 282,808 people, according to Bret Crow, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. It’s increased its unemployment staff from 42 to nearly 1,200. Eventually, everyone who’s entitled to claim unemployment will get it, officials have said.

“All the folks working at ODJFS understand this,” Husted said. “They understand that there are fears and frustrations and they know that the level of customer service they have been providing needs to get better.”

State officials say they realize that each pending claim is a real person, and not just a statistic.

Here are a few of the stories of those we heard from:

Rabecca Pucher, 24, Stow

Pucher filed on March 20, the day she was laid off indefinitely from her job working at a dental laboratory.

Her claim was listed in the state’s internal system as “pending.” She called the state unemployment system repeatedly, leaving voice mails, but couldn’t get through to anyone. At one point, she managed to speak to someone, but was transferred before she could finish her question.

“Probably over 500 calls. I’m not even joking. I literally called over 500 times,” she said.

On April 1, she eventually received a packet in the mail that said her last name didn’t match the social security number the state has on file. The form said it should be returned by March 26. She faxed the state information proving her identity.

Last Friday, she got finally got someone on the phone. After a nine minute conversation, her claim was fixed, and she started getting funds on Tuesday.

“Unemployment is a massive mess, and they need to do something to fix it. Because it’s absurd how difficult everything is,” she said.

Austin Teal, 25, Cleveland Heights

Teal first attempted to file on March 21, the day after he was laid off from his job working for a deli in Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood. He spent the next two and a half weeks trying to figure out how file a claim.

The website crashed immediately, or sometimes timed out in the middle of the application. He then had trouble registering a PIN to access his account. He called customer service, and after he eventually got through to someone, they gave him his new PIN number and hung up.

On April 9, he successfully filed his claim. On April 13, he got a message from the state saying he had been ruled eligible. But he’s unable to actually open the message, which says it requires action by May 4.

So now, he’s just waiting. He got his federal stimulus check on Wednesday, which he used to cover his rent.

“I’m worried about paying my bills,” he said.

Kari Iarocci, 38, Mentor

Iarocci filed on March 29, two days after she was laid off from her job in a podiatry practice.

She was approved two days later, but when she filed her first claim for funds, her application was held up after she checked on a prompt that she was not looking for work. (This likely is a holdover from the state unemployment system’s work requirements, which state officials have said are waived for people displaced by the coronavirus crisis.)

“It said to answer honestly so I did,” she said. “Well that had held up my entire claim.”

On Wednesday, after waiting on hold for an hour and a half, her call rang and then hung up. She called back, navigating the automated prompts for a Spanish-speaking operator. She got through to someone, who told her the problems would be fixed and to check back tomorrow.

Iarocci said Thursday her claim shows up in the state system as being approved. Now, she’s waiting for funds to come through.

“I know the lieutenant governor said they are working on the claims and not to worry, but would it be fixed if I didn’t call?” she said.

Sue Russ, 52, Akron

Russ hasn’t successfully been able to file a claim since she was indefinitely furloughed from her job with the Akron-Summit County Public Library last Friday.

She said she made a mistake on her online application. So she called her human-resources department to get the correct information. But when she came back, the state system had logged her off. She then tried to call customer service, but couldn’t get through to anyone.

“It feels like they’ve turned off their phones, because you can’t even get into a hold queue to answer a question,” she said.

She received an email from the state, asking her if she was laid off. She responded she was furloughed, which she’s not sure is the correct answer.

Russ has called her credit card companies, which have been accommodating, she said.

“They’ve been nice and helpful, because everybody’s in this situation. But it’s the not knowing and the uncertainty, and whether I’m going to have enough money to pay my bills after the next three or four weeks.”

©2020 The Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.