Head of Ohio Job and Family Services answers questions about unemployment system failures

Posted at 10:51 PM, May 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-28 12:30:40-04

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Kimberly Hall, the director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, was interviewed Wednesday at the statehouse over the agency’s handling of the recent spike in unemployment.

Thousands across the state said they haven’t seen any money after weeks of calling and emailing – leaving them struggling and with nowhere to turn.

Robert Taylor saw money from the state for the first time since the onset of the pandemic. Before now, he tried unsuccessfully to collect unemployment for 10 weeks.

“I was notified on March 14 that, per the governor’s directive, that we were closing,” Taylor said of his job at a dinner theater.

He was proactive after learning he would lose his job. But when he couldn’t get help over the phone, he contacted his senator, state rep and visited the Ohio JFS office twice – all to no avail.

“There was a gentleman there who was extremely helpful,” Taylor said. “He looked at my application and said ‘there’s nothing wrong with it, but you don’t fit any of the buckets, so it’s never going to pop out to somebody and say, ‘Hey, look at this.’’”

According to Taylor, a pre-existing health condition meant he didn’t fit into a category the system recognized, so the calls he made every day for weeks got nowhere.

“Over 200 would be a conservative estimate,” he said.

Taylor’s story would be repeated by hundreds if not thousands of others across the state.

“Instead of layoffs happening gradually, they came all at once in a tsunami,” JFS director Hall told lawmakers Wednesday.

The House Ways and Means Committee also questioned Hall about the backlog.

“With all due respect, it’s too late,” House Ways and Means Chairman Derek Merrin said. "It’s too late for over a million Ohioans that have suffered through trying to apply for benefits.”

Hall said it was a perfect storm of unprecedented need, an antiquated system and nearly 200 fewer JFS employees. The department’s budget was cut over time because Ohio’s unemployment rate was low.

“This year we have seen more initial claims than in all of 2009, but we started this pandemic with a third of the staff,” Hall said. “We’ve been catching up ever since.”

Ohio was ranked 13th in the U.S. last quarter for processing claims in a timely manner 95% of the time. Since the pandemic began, that’s dropped to 42%.

The committee chairman said more should have been done to prepare for an emergency – and that includes a more user-friendly system.

“Your department says ‘Well, we can’t help it because we’re getting so many phone calls,'” Merrin said. “The reason you’re getting so many phone calls is because your website’s broken.”

Taylor said he’s been able to save for emergencies but knows not everyone can do the same. He hopes the pandemic will be a lesson for the state agency in the future.

“The system doesn’t work now, and I don’t know what the answer is, but it’s not what it is now, not for the average family,” Taylor said.

The Ohio department of Job and Family Services anticipates getting an updated online unemployment system in place, but it won’t be ready for use until 2022.