COLUMBUS, Ohio- The state's Department of Job and Family Services faced tough questions as issues of capacity and technology continue to plague the unemployment process.
“Very sorry and disappointed that we don't have the system, we didn't have the system capabilities, and are still building they system capabilities to be fully responsive to get everyone the benefits they are entitled to,” says ODJFS Director Kimberly Hall in response to a reporter's question about her disappointment with the unemployment process. “But I have to say I'm proud of the progress we made under the circumstance.”
The department nearly complete processing through the 1.2 million claims filed over the past nine weeks since layoffs began due to the pandemic. As of data released May 21, 7.6% of initial unique claims were pending resolution, and 92% processed by ODJFS.
More than 2.2 billion in claims have been paid due to the pandemic in regular unemployment funds including the additional $600 Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation weekly payment.
ODJFS also reports that after a week of processing under the state's new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) system, the state issued payments to around 76,000 claimants, paying out $428M in federally-funded benefits.
But, neither the rollout of PUA nor the distribution of regular unemployment benefits has been without challenges.
Ohioans are still reporting issues getting through to the call center, including long wait times, disconnects, and agents that cannot resolve issues satisfactorily. ODJFS says they are receiving an average of 350,000 calls per day, and report that as high as 70% or more go unanswered.
On May 20, for instance, ODJFS says they received 146,000 calls, but only could answer around 45,000 via live agent or automated chat response, or around 31% of offered calls answered based on data released during a press briefing call.
Hall and other officials have previously announced up to 1,600 agents are staffing both internal and third party call centers, and it upgraded its phone routing system and capacity.
"The number of individuals that need to engage with the unemployment office, its certainly not tapering off right, because we're adding a new system," says Hall. "We've added Robert Half as our third vendor we have three vendors."
Technical glitches within the new PUA system continue to prevent some filers from completing their applications. Currently, some claimants are able to complete their claims due to a validation issue with the regular unemployment system.
“We had to make a prioritization so we are moving through resolving those errors, it really is a function of standing up a system as rapidly as we can,” says Hall.
Beyond capacity issues, over the past two weeks ODJFS systems also experienced vulnerability issues – a denial of service attack on regular unemployment servers earlier this month, and what the department calls a “data leak,” to clarify some reports of a breach, where 26 claimants had access to screens only authorized for employees.
“They had a right to be there, they just saw screens that they shouldn't have seen as a claimant,” Hall explains.
The Director maintains that its systems are safe and secure, and they say the data leak issue was fixed within the hour even though claimants and the public didn't get notice until days after the incident. Hall says that there was a long information vetting and compliance process prior to the release of information, as well as low risk for data exposure.
“There are multiple eyes at increasingly high levels within the state that review, we have legal review to make sure that we are meeting all of the federal and state requirements requirement attendant to information leaks, et cetera, so it did take a period of time,” says Hall.
Despite the challenges, Director Hall says the department has made strides to meet the continuous need.
“It is not at all a source of pride for me that individuals are still in need of benefits, but I am proud of the herculean efforts that have been undertaken since March 15th when we experienced overnight a 2600 percent increase in our workload,” says Hall.