MOUNT VERNON — As Ohio continues to grapple with the economic impact of COVID-19, there are uncertainties and issues regarding unemployment benefits that will need to be ironed out in the process.
Southeastern Ohio Legal Services Managing Attorney Dennis Harrington encouraged people to call SEOLS at 833-288-2936 for assistance on unemployment issues, from applying for benefits to appealing denials. Harrington emphasized that the services are free to those who are eligible for SEOLS’ assistance.
Ohio’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program went online on May 13. In addition to the traditional unemployment benefits, PUA is a new program for self-employed, part-time, contract or gig workers and workers who otherwise do not meet the traditional work history or wage requirements. It also covers people who have exhausted their traditional unemployment benefits after July 19, 2019.
As the application process may be unfamiliar to many first-time users of either PUA or traditional unemployment, SEOLS helps their clients troubleshoot and address difficulties.
Staff Attorney Mary Kovalesky said that SEOLS has helped clients in their 60s or 70s, who have not applied for unemployment before.
“If (clients) call only for help applying, we have a clinic set up with pro bono attorneys and volunteers who are helping people with that process,” said Patrina Queen, a SEOLS Paralegal and Benefits Specialist. “And then if they run into a problem, they refer that back to the local office, and we pick it up from there and evaluate the case and figure out what needs to be done to resolve the issue.”
To help applicants navigate the system and avoid common errors, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services has also released step-by-step guides online for traditional unemployment at ohio.gov/wps/portal/gov/site/jobs/resources/file-for-unemployment and for PUA at unemploymenthelp.ohio.gov/expandedeligibility.
Queen noted that when applying for unemployment, choosing direct deposit should result in faster payments — unless the applicant already has a US Bank ReliaCard debit card where the benefits can be paid to. If someone does not have a checking or saving account, the debit card will be mailed to them, according to Queen.
Queen also recommended that people opt for electronic (email) notifications if possible and check their email frequently for updates.
Some applicants may receive notifications asking them to provide additional information online or to call the unemployment office, according to Queen.
Queen noted that there are generally two numbers to call. One is the Office of Unemployment Compensation at 877-644-6562. Kovalesky and Queen recognized that this line is often busy due to high call volume.
“We had people who have continuously tried to do that (call back) and do finally get through,” Queen said of some of her clients’ experience.
Another way is to call the individual processing center based on the last four digits of the applicant’s social security number (SSN.) For example, those whose SSNs end between 0000 and 0765 will be assigned to the Cleveland Adjudication Center.
Those are the centers that are processing individual cases. Queen said applicants can call these centers if they haven’t received any notice from unemployment.
The processing center assignment and numbers can be found online at jfs.ohio.gov/ouio/claims-processing-center-locations.stm.
Queen advises that people keep track of their attempts to resolve any issue — keeping a call log of the dates and times they call, and if they get through to somebody or just receive an automated message.
“If they have problems establishing eligibility, those records might help them be able to establish that they should have been eligible way before they were able to apply,” Queen said.
Queen said in most cases, SEOLS has reached out to ODJFS for some issues that need to be resolved internally by the unemployment office.
One such issue relates to identity verification. If someone remarried and their name on the social security card doesn’t match the name they applied for benefits under, it can cause an eligibility issue, and “it stops the process until unemployment confirms you are who you are,” Queen said.
Applicants who claim child dependents from previous relationships may also be subject to additional verification because the children’s last names do not match the applicant’s, according to Queen.
“They had to provide documentation, birth certificate and social security card, to get those issues resolved,” Queen explained.
Technical issues aside, the attorneys and paralegal acknowledged that there is a notable unemployment backlog due to the high volume of claims itself. They are hesitant to advise a certain amount of wait time before someone contacts the unemployment office.
“We would have a ready answer in the normal world, that if you apply for any kind of benefits and you haven’t heard anything in a certain period of time, we would say check back,” Harrington said. “But this is developing so fast (and) the systems are being taxed. It’s hard to give a real good answer to that. Certainly not the next day, but certainly don’t wait three months.”
Under the governor’s COVID-19 executive order, people do not need to be actively seeking work to qualify for unemployment as long as they are still able and available to work, Kovalesky noted. This is in acknowledgment of many businesses closing and the health environment making it difficult to go out and seek work.
As the state gradually moves to reopen, Kovalesky said how it might affect people’s unemployment eligibility is still “sort of gray.”
Queen shared that she and Kovalesky are part of a statewide group that has been urging the state to come up with guidelines.
“What we have been doing as a statewide group is trying to encourage the state to come up with some standard good cause reasons — why if somebody is called back to work (that) they could refuse that work or suitable work and still receive unemployment benefits,” Queen said.
Some of the suggested considerations include health conditions, childcare and workplace safety. So far, the group has not received a response from the state, according to Queen.