'I'm drowning here' — Many jobless workers can't get through to Ohio's unemployment system

Posted at 9:28 PM, Apr 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-28 23:25:46-04

CANTON, Ohio — Ohio's unemployment system continues to be overwhelmed with more calls than workers can answer.

People calling to get help said they are frustrated and not sure what to do.

Geoffrey Greene has been trying for weeks to get through to unemployment, calling, by his estimate, 200 to 300 times, including more than 100 times in a single day.

During that time, Greene said, he has "not gotten one single person one time."

Greene moved home to Canton recently from Port Clinton. In Canton, he's been working at Horizon Audio, a car customization store with three locations, where he sells aftermarket parts.

Like many other stores, his workplace shut down March 23 due to the stay-at-home order.

"We all finally sat down and had a meeting," Greene said. "Until I find permanent housing, I’ve been staying with my mother, and she just recently had heart troubles. We agreed that I didn’t want to bring COVID home to my mom, and there [were] other people there that had, let’s say, diabetes and didn’t want to take that stuff home."

He added, "We thought it was gonna be something temporary, like a week, so we thought we’d shut down, we’d clean the shop, everything would be back to normal."

But it's been more than a month. Greene had only been working at the company for 15 or 16 weeks, and he's had trouble accessing Ohio's unemployment system or getting his benefits approved.

"Every time it shows I’m about to be paid, it’ll say 'denied,'" Greene said.

Greene said he's been told his benefits will be backdated, but that doesn't help him right now. He also doesn't have insurance with his new company yet and has to pay for medications out of his own pocket.

"I burned through everything I had to stay afloat," Greene said.

Greene said his boss even wrote him a personal check to help him cover his car payment.

Meanwhile, Greene has continued to reach someone at unemployment, but the system is swamped.

On Monday, the director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services said the department is averaging more than 500,000 calls each day.

"On Friday, we had close to a million," Kimberly Hall, ODJFS director, said.

She added, "Not all of the million calls that come in are going to be able to hold for an agent. We don’t have that capacity."

Greene still needs help to figure out why his benefits are getting denied, or even just to unlock his PIN. He said he accidentally clicked on something in a chat that said he needed to change it, and now he can't log in to the system at all.

"I’m sure if I got somebody on the phone, they would make it right, but at this point, I’ve pretty much thrown in the towel," Greene said, adding that he last tried to call Monday evening or Tuesday morning.

Greene emphasized that he knows it's been tough for everyone during this difficult time. But, like many others, he's in a rough spot and isn't sure where to turn for help.

"I’m drowning here," Greene said. "I don’t know what to do."

Greene said the stores in which he works plan to reopen May 12, but he said it would still be another week or two before he would get another paycheck.

For people like Greene, who have been at their companies for fewer than 20 weeks, the unemployment compensation for which they are eligible is the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which is the expanded unemployment available under the CARES Act.

As of this past Friday, workers can pre-register online to be able to access that program, essentially getting in line for when the system can accept their claims sometime in May.