CLEVELAND — In just over a month, Ohio will officially withdraw in the Federal Unemployment Assistance Program put in place by Congress last year to provide $300 per week in unemployment benefits to those impacted by the ongoing pandemic. However, Gov. Mike DeWine’s announcement of the state’s withdrawal of the program comes as many Ohioans are still struggling to get those benefits to begin with.
On Thursday, DeWine announced the decision, citing numerous conversations with business owners and trade groups that have struggled mightily to fill open positions. The governor and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said in some respects, the additional unemployment benefits were discouraging people from re-entering the work force.
“I’ve actually talked to individuals who have said to me, ‘it doesn’t make sense for me to go back to work because I make more on unemployment than I do working,’” Lt. Gov Husted said Thursday. “I don’t blame them. I don’t cast any blame on the individual because the government made a policy that said, ‘we’ll pay you more not to work than to go back to work.”
That scenario does not apply to Emily Howell and her partner, Tom, of Barberton.
Last summer, Tom Howell was laid off from his position and was granted pandemic unemployment assistance (PUA). While his claim was being processed, he found employment at a new job and was assured that the PUA would cover the eight weeks of wages that he was unemployed.
"He had already been working for almost two months by then,” Howell said. “We waited, waited and waited but there was nothing. We waited for about two months because we figured everyone was backed up. Everyone was having problems. It’s going to take forever.”
Ohio’s unemployment benefits system was crushed by an onslaught of applicants in the early days of the pandemic and has struggled to recover from it. Complicating matters further, the state, like many others, has experienced rampant unemployment fraud that has not only delayed the claims of legitimate applicants but also cost the state millions upon millions of dollars.
The end product has been an exercise in frustration and futility, Howell said.
To date, Tom has yet to receive any benefits.
“It has been almost a year to the date. He filed May 23rd,” Howell said. “That is a good amount of money that is missing from our income. For a lot of people that are low to middle class, missing $2,000 to $3,000 out of your year, that is a huge setback. That was a protection for us. Of course, the system failed us and then we tried to use another system put into place to protect us and that system is failing us too.”
Howell said she found the governor’s decision to withdraw the state from PUA a perplexing one, especially considering the fact that she and others have yet to receive benefits. She also said the governor’s rationale for leaving the program — there are many jobs available and vaccines are aplenty — is a far too simplistic way of viewing a resident’s individual situation.
“You see all of these people that are saying, ‘Just go back to work. Just go. You’re lazy. Do this, do that.,’” Howell said. “I look at my partner’s situation where he took a $5 an hour payout just to make ends meet. It would push more people to go back to work, sure, but it’s not going to help any of the people that still have to stay home with their children.”