Unemployment shuffle during pandemic is lesson in patience

Shortly after the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed at the end of March, my two eldest sons and I applied for unemployment, which, under current conditions, proved an exercise in tenacity.

My son Claude was an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) this past year at the Summit Food Coalition. As his stipend was only $950 a month, he also worked part time as a server at Macaroni Grill. That job abruptly ended when all restaurants in Ohio were ordered to close March 15.

Typically, Claude’s earnings at Macaroni Grill would not have been high enough for him to collect unemployment, but that’s an important part of the CARES Act — many job situations that formerly would not qualify for unemployment benefits temporarily do.

After Claude and I applied, the state announced we had to wait for a special Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) website to launch. When it did, six weeks after the CARES Act passed, Claude’s claim was denied and he was the first among us to call, wait on hold for an hour or more and then talk at length with a caseworker at the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS).

Full stop: Among the three of us, we’ve now spoken with dozens of caseworkers at ODJFS. All have been incredibly helpful and friendly. Every. Single. One.

I’ve written before about being kind to workers in stores. The same rule applies to people trying to help you over the phone: Be nice.

Caseworkers are not to blame for the multitudinous problems getting unemployment claims properly processed. The system was designed to be difficult. After the Great Recession, Ohio’s unemployment system, like those in many other states, was intentionally reconstructed to treat every application as potentially fraudulent.

Then, when COVID-19 shut down most of the economy, Ohio’s unemployment system needed to pivot 180 degrees and treat every application as legitimate. At the same time, the system was receiving more applications each week than had been submitted in the previous several years.

Even at the best of times, government bureaucracy is not expeditious. Therefore, it’s amazing how many Ohio unemployment claims have been properly processed in the past three months.

Claude eventually had to close his original claim and reopen a new one. The week after he did, he received unemployment payments for all the weeks he’d been laid off.

Hugo had four jobs in Rochester, New York. Three at performance venues for the Eastman School of Music, where he was in his last year of college, and a music-outreach internship with Rochester Public Schools. When all four stopped on the same day in mid-March, Hugo moved back to Akron.

As Ohio is his permanent residence, Hugo filed his application for unemployment here. When it was denied, ODJFS was by then so swamped he could never reach a caseworker when he called. The automated recording would tell him, “Please try again later,” before disconnecting.

After three weeks of not getting through to ODJFS, Hugo decided to apply with the state of New York. Baddah-boom, baddah-bing, the following week he had his unemployment, including all retroactive payments.

Then there’s me. More than half my annual income is earned proofreading transcripts (about 2,000 pages a month) for court reporters. As with much of the economy, depositions and hearings also stopped suddenly March 15.

Like my boys, my unemployment application was initially declined. The system tried to process my claim against the University of Akron, where I was teaching part-time until the end of May.

I called ODJFS every week for two and a half months. When lucky, I was on hold for over an hour and then spoke with a caseworker. (The ODJFS hold music now fills my nightly dreams like a soundtrack.) More often, however, I was disconnected due to high call volume.

I’m still talking with my friends at ODJFS as I’ve not yet received my full retroactive payments, even after sending an email to backdatecovid@jfs.ohio.gov (if you haven’t gotten your retroactive money, send an explanation of your situation to that address). It seems my part-time UA employment is still confusing the system.

The second caseworker I spoke to in early April apologetically asked to pause for a moment so she could collect herself. She was crying. Not because of how I spoke to her, but because her job had become so stressful. Sitting at home without co-workers or managers to help answer questions, she worked diligently to try to find the correct answers for unprecedented issues.

I recently read that one reason we’ve not seen a larger spike in cases of depression during the pandemic is because there is added strength in knowing we are all going through this simultaneously.

As we struggle in these volatile times, patience, perseverance and especially kindness are what we all need. Both with others and ourselves.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, July 26, 2020.

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