OHIO- Lunch rushes and happy hours are now a memory of a different time. Employees who used to count tips are now counting the days since their last shift and their last paycheck, and they’re counting the times they’ve had to call unemployment to get their questions answered. Thursday’s announcement of nearly 700,000 Ohioans on unemployment is only part of the picture as there are still many across Ohio in limbo.
Marla Hicks is a bartender at Bossy Grrl’s Pin Up Joint in Columbus. She had worked there since the beginning seven years ago.
“It’s very much like a family,” says Hicks via videocall. “My regulars take care of me, and we’ve all become a little family. And, the staff, there’s only like seven of us. So we’re all a little family too.
Well, she was until the coronavirus shut down bars and restaurants just over two weeks ago.
“So going through this especially how frustrating and stressful and scary it is, not having that Community around me to take my mind off of it and to like, you know, blanket me with love and take my mind off of it is hard for sure,” Hicks says.
Now she’s at home spending her days trying to get through the unemployment claims process. She said she thought, based on what she heard, that she would qualify.
“But, after two weeks of waiting and the site crashing every time you tried to get on it,” Hicks explained. “I found out I was denied.”
Hicks is just one story of the people who feel left out of the promises of unemployment during the shutdown. Her weekly wages are less than the weekly wage threshold, which means she doesn’t qualify for typical unemployment.
“Some of my regulars have donated, and they were literally the only reason I was able to pay my bills this past month,” says Hicks. “So, the loss of wages and loss of almost my entire community has been a double whammy.”
She filed again now that the CARES Act was passed in March, but says she’s still waiting to hear back.
“With this, I just feel like I’m treading water, and I’m drowning slowly,” says Hicks. “Because there’s nothing you can do.”
More and more Ohioans are taking to social media to express frustration with the unemployment benefits process, delays in claims and payments and denials. Hundreds of thousands of Ohioans have filed for unemployment since the state shut down bars and restaurants on March 15th, and that drove 1.7 million calls, and a record number of website hits to Job and Family Services in March crashing systems and jump-starting a massive upgrade.
JFS says they have multiplied their server capacity 20 times and added hundreds of people to the phones to answer calls. Around 1000 state and county employees are now taking calls seven days a week, but filers across the state are still facing issues filing initial claims getting questions answered and being denied when they feel they should qualify.
“We feel like we’ve been lied to, we feel like we have been betrayed because we were made to think that everyone who got laid off would be eligible for some kind of unemployment compensation and we feel like we’re not being heard,” says Hicks.
The guidance on new unemployment programs rolled out quickly to states from the CARES Act legislation signed on March 27th. Ohio just received the lengthy documents over the last weekend. Earlier reports and interviews contained mixed messages over whether or not people like Hicks, bar, restaurant, and other tipped or lower-wage employees who fall under the weekly wage minimum could get benefits. The answer is yes, but not yet, according to Ohio Department of Job and Family Services Director Kimberly Hall.
“So there’s the regular UI system, which is our current existing system,” Hall explained during a teleconference with media on Thursday. “We are standing up a new UI system. That is the PUA system.”
Zach Schiller from Policy Matters Ohio says the wide-sweeping coverage approved in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program was meant to be as inclusive as possible.
“Many workers who previously had not been eligible will be able to get unemployment ranging from Uber drivers to self-employed to people who had been working but had not made enough to qualify under Ohio’s stringent earning standard.
But, for now, if you’re like Hicks and fall into the covered individuals category for PUA category, you’ll be denied under the current unemployment system. The state can’t process those claims under that new program using current technology.
“It’s frustrating, I know, and really challenging for individuals to be in this kind of limbo state right now while we are understanding requirements partnering with the vendor to build the system,” says Hall in response to inquiries whether PUA claimants should file under the current system.
“But, they really need to wait until we have the PUA system established,” says Hall
This new system will not only have to handle the new types of claims under Pua, but will have to integrate with current JFS system Hall says JFS has not selected a vendor, but they have expedited the process to get one. Hall anticipates that new system sometime in May.
Hall says the current 16-year-old system doesn’t use cloud-based technology, which makes it difficult to scale up and adapt to the department’s needs. New York, who are also upgrading systems in response to the Federal legislation, is using a Google Cloud-based system allowing NYS to register PUA applicants now and roll out some CARES act benefits earlier than Ohio according to a press release from the NY Department of Labor.
“It is very clear that we really need to be working aggressively through this month,” says Hall, who explained that each state has different challenges with implementation and are hard to compare. “Citizens are already at their limit in terms of tolerance and patience.”
Meanwhile, tolerance and patience are precisely what the state is asking for, but Ohioans like Hicks are looking for dollars and cents to get through this pandemic, and help could be more than a month away.