CINCINNATI — Even as Ohio and Kentucky have paid out tens of billions of dollars in state and federal unemployment benefits since the start of the pandemic, thousands of people in the Tri-State area continue to struggle to get the benefits owed to them.
WCPO is diving into the unemployment problem and that’s where this story begins: with what’s wrong.
“I called every day, several times a day,” Terry Mahurin said months ago as he shared his frustrations trying to communicate with Kentucky’s unemployment system. He is still owed thousands, even after snagging a coveted in-person interview at Covington’s regional office at the Kentucky Career Center.
Mahurin is one of many still holding on to what feels like a sinking boat, hoping to get paid benefits. While he has other means to pay bills, many others have shared with us that they fear losing their homes and cars.
“My savings are pretty well depleted. My cards are at max,” Jeffrey Limerick of downtown Cincinnati said one year after first applying for benefits in Ohio. He has not received a penny in unemployment benefits.
People on both sides of the river feel like they are sinking financially because the antiquated systems in Kentucky and Ohio could not handle the sudden surge of claims that came with pandemic-related shutdowns.
“It runs on a structure that is older than DOS," said Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear. "It is older than I am.”
Matt Damschroder, the interim director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, uses a different analogy.
"Our system, which was built for the equivalent of a normal annual rainfall, was not prepared for a 500-year flood,” Damschroder said.
Both states, like many others, have been overwhelmed by legitimate claims as well as cyber-attacks.
“One person is trying to file 5,000 (claims) and see what sticks,” Beshear said.
The fraudulent claims further victimize honest people like Mary Eldridge of Highland Heights, whose payments ceased suddenly at a time the single mother had no ability to bring in other income amid the pandemic.
“All of a sudden I get a message that’s saying it’s flagged for fraud,” Eldridge said. When she called for help, “Nobody ever answered. Nobody ever called me back.”
Kentucky has re-opened regional unemployment offices to offer in-person consults, but unless you go online right at midnight when new appointments open up, you’ll likely see “no appointments available” when you click the online link to sign up.
The problems getting through to someone about their benefits have led many in the Tri-State to turn to the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati for help.
“We’ve had more cases in the past year than we’ve had in the last five years combined,” said Legal Aid attorney Regina Campbell.
Campbell said a lot of cases are clogged up in the “review process.”
“We know that there is a huge backlog right now at ODJFS at that level and so people are waiting months in order to get this second decision,” Campbell said.
Many of the people whose cases WCPO has profiled have since gotten paid as Ohio and Kentucky make some progress bailing water out of the proverbial boat. Others who are still waiting for payments have secured jobs as the economy opens up, but that money will not be enough to get them out of the debt they have accrued over the past year.
“I just think it’s a travesty that in the country we live in people are struggling to get what is owed them,” said Elaine Mahurin as she and her husband are forced to wait for benefits owed.
If you are having trouble getting unemployment benefits and are willing to go on camera, email Julie O'Neill at firstname.lastname@example.org.