It was a sad song for James “Mick” Martino in January.
The out-of-work musician was cut off from benefits as he was notified by the state of Ohio that he had been overpaid about $10,000. Then he contracted COVID-19 and missed his deadline to file an appeal.
“I tried to contact them by email. I tried to call them, which is incredibly a debacle because when you call you’re on hold for literally hours,” Martino told WCPO 9 News then.
It’s a different tune now from Martino, who received a call from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services following the story WCPO 9 News aired profiling his story.
“They stated that first of all they would unlock the payments, so I would start getting them, which was a relief because I hadn’t gotten paid in 2-3 months,” Martino said. “My music lessons have dried up a lot because of the virus. People are still wary to come over, and not everybody’s been vaccinated, so I needed that.”
More important for him, Martino learned he may soon be off the hook on reimbursing the state for it mistakenly overpaying him.
“They said they’re going to try to work that to where I would not have to repay that ten grand, which to me is the right thing to do,” said Martino.
In testimony last week before the Ohio Senate Finance Committee, ODJFS interim director Matt Damschroder explained how the state mistakenly overpaid thousands of claimants.
“We and the staff at ODJFS have been overtaking a thorough review of our federal reporting tools. In so doing, we have discovered that the system query was wrong in the PUA program,” said Damschroder.
Damschroder said the goal of ODJFS is to release a plan on waiving overpayments next month.
“We are currently in the process of evaluating what all of the different scenarios and circumstances would be so that we can set up a robust program that responds to Ohioans and is equitable,” Damschroder said.
Damschroder also said the state’s help the past six weeks from private sector experts at top Ohio banking and insurance companies (the P3 team) has helped ODJFS revamp its calling and contact system and cross-train its specialists so that they can help people with both traditional unemployment benefits and those that people are receiving through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.
“I think it’s been a phenomenal effort,” said Damschroder. “We have been aggressively working to boost staffing levels, improve our training curriculum, cross-train staff, streamline the claims adjudication process, and take additional measures to combat fraud.”
With the help of the P3 team, Damschroder said the state has seen improvement in serving Ohioans over the last two weeks in particular.
“We greatly increased the number of calls that are answered, and we’re now using Experian and LexisNexis technology to verify the identity of unemployment applicants, which has greatly reduced the number of fraudulent applications,” said Damschroder. “It would be untrue for me to say we’re there, but we’re making progress and we’re not stopping.”