CINCINNATI — Karen Aarons is an aesthetician and nail technician and mother to two teenagers at home. Her co-worker, Michelle Fox, has six kids. Laura Harrell works in the restaurant industry.
Their jobs have now become trying to get a hold of someone -- anyone -- who can help them find a way to receive unemployment benefits as they wait for businesses to start reopening.
It’s scary, not just for Aarons, but for her kids, too.
“They hear me every morning,” she said. “They see me on the screen; they hear me frustrated.”
More than a month after layoffs started to ripple across Ohio -- brought on by the closure of the economy to stop the spread of COVID-19 -- many are still fighting for benefits and are not sure when -- or even if -- they will get them.
More than 855,190 people have applied for unemployment compensation in Ohio this month as of April 20, according to the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services. That’s more than the number of people who applied in 2018 and 2019 combined.
If you have questions about unemployment:
As of April 15, there were 1,200 people answering the phones at Jobs and Family Services, said Lt. Gov. Jon Husted.
That may help explain the difficulty in getting through, but it doesn’t help Laura Harrell pay the bills. Some days, she calls the office 60 times.
“I want to know what happened to me,” Harrell said. “I want to know why I am in this black hole of not being paid. I’ve been paying into the system for many, many years, and I never used it. This is a time when I really could and really need it.”
Husted said his office is doing everything it can to improve the experience for Ohioans.
“They are scaling up new people as fast as they can, but they have a limited number of trainers,” he said.
This week, JFS will be onboarding 337 more people. They’ll also be adding voice recognition technology and a virtual call center in order to make the process less difficult.
And while many people are navigating unemployment for the first time, it has caused a lot of confusion about who qualifies. That has led to more calls.
If you were laid off or furloughed due to COVID-19, you qualify for unemployment benefits, according to the JFS website. If you were self-employed, a substitute teacher or an independent contractor, you qualify. If a doctor says you need to isolate because you’re high risk, yet you lost your job for not coming in, you qualify.
We found this information by going to the frequently asked questions section of the website. Scroll down and click the first tab to see a complete list of who is eligible under this new program.
If you were on unemployment before the pandemic, you qualify for an extra 13 weeks of payment, Husted said. But your application won’t likely be seen until May 1, he said at an April 15 press conference.
Also during that press conference, Lt. Gov. Husted said some Ohioans have received unemployment checks but have not received the extra $600 the federal government is adding to that amount every week. He said many Ohioans won’t get that until JFS begins processing that on May 15.
“This process will not stop improving until everybody is served and the reassurance that everything that you’re eligible for will be backdated to that time,” Husted said.
Meanwhile, Aarons wonders if her application for unemployment benefits got lost in the shuffle. She said she filed for benefits March 19, which was before JFS gave the public a mass layoff number to put on applications to speed up the process.
JFS said it is fixing that on the back end, but what does that mean for Aarons?
“If it’s on my part that I did something wrong, then why can’t it be corrected,” she said. “Why can’t I get help to get it corrected? Because there’s no answers. There’s no one to reach. There’s no one to talk to. There’s no one to chat with. They don’t correspond. There’s no email.”
And it leaves families feeling unsettled and uncertain.
“It’s frustrating,” Fox said. “Obviously, I have a lot of kids, and it’s four weeks now [of] pay held, pay held, pay held.”
JFS said it is looking into the three mothers’ cases for us. However, time is not slowing down for them.
“So for me, do I go out and get a job, or do I stick this out,” Aarons said. “I don’t know how long someone can really not be able to get unemployment without starting to really struggle.”