COLUMBUS, Ohio — In his first one-on-one interview since being appointed the director of the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services, Matt Damschroder said, "Don't lose hope. We're working on it" to unemployed workers frustrated by ongoing problems plaguing the Ohio's overwhelmed, antiquated system.
"I certainly understand where they’re coming from," Damschroder said. "But where we’re at right now is much different, much improved."
Damschroder said Ohio workers' unemployment claims are being processed more quickly.
"This is an area where we’ve had very significant improvement over the last several months," he said. "By April of this year, the non-fraud backlog was cleared, and by July the 2021 non-fraud backlog was cleared, so we’re basically currently at this point for new claims."
However, Damschroder acknowledged unemployed workers whose claims were flagged for fraud are still waiting for help.
"There certainly are claims that have fraud flags that are pending from 2020 and we are working those every day," he said. "It’s very much a process. Fact-finding is intensive. Sending information out to a claimant. Waiting to get it back. So we certainly understand for those individuals who are caught up in that situation, but we are focused on it."
Damschroder said ODJFS has improved customer service for workers calling to ask for help with their unemployment claims.
"We’ve done a lot already on the customer service improvement front," he said. "The wait times have decreased significantly... one of the things that we’ve done is to better direct callers to an agent that can help them."
He said the average wait time is now less than 10 minutes, but acknowledged calls for pending claims may take much longer. "Claims that are still pending become more complicated," he said.
Along with the continuing overall decline in new claims, Damschroder said a new feature that allows unemployed workers to schedule a return call, instead of waiting on hold, has also decreased wait times and improved service.
"All of us are focused every day on how can we move these things from a pending status to an approved status so individuals are getting the claims that they’re owed," he said.
Two state lawmakers said ODJFS still has a lot of work to do to properly serve the state's unemployed workers. They said their staffs regularly receive calls and emails from unemployed Ohio workers who have been unable to access their benefits for weeks - even months - and who still say it is difficult to reach an ODJFS employee who can assist them with their claim.
"People cannot afford to wait," OH Sen. Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo) said. "Someone has to make them whole first and then fix the system. No blame-shifting. Make your processes work."
OH Rep. Jeff Crossman (D-Parma) said he recently received an email from a constituent who wrote that he was contemplating suicide because he has been unable to access his unemployment benefits for six months.
"This is not the first time we have a constituent tell us they’re contemplating ending their life because they just can’t fathom why they just can’t get the help that they need," Crossman said. "There’s just a lot of bureaucratic red tape and inefficiency at JFS and they need to iron out these problems in their system."
Crossman said he wrote a letter to Damschroder about the man's case and other constituents' complaints, but has yet to receive a response.
"What we're seeing out there is just a complete mess," he said.
While Ohio workers have waited for help during the pandemic, cybercriminals helped themselves to hundreds of millions of dollars in Ohio's unemployment fund.
"A lot of that money went overseas immediately and will never be recovered," he said," Damschroder said, "But we’re actively involved with federal law enforcement, state law enforcement and whatever avenues we can pursue to recover funds we will certainly do that."
ODJFS recently brought in David DeVillers, former U.S. Attorney for the southern district of Ohio, to assist the FBI and other law enforcement in investigations into the stolen funds.
Ohio has also hired several companies, including LexisNexis and Experian, to prevent fraud.
"Ohio’s not alone. This has been a national problem. For us, part of it was that we had a 20-year-old computer system that we were in the process of replacing when the pandemic struck and so the challenge has been how do we make this 20-year-old system [that is] four years older than the earliest iPhone, how can we make it function?"
Going forward, he said Ohio and the rest of the country need to ensure unemployment systems remain funded even when unemployment rates are low.
"I think it important to invest in technology all the time," he said.
What about account takeovers, where cybercriminals reroute recipients' benefits to their own bank accounts? We'll tell you how Director Damschroder said he will help the victims and prevent additional thefts.
Watch Part 2 of our exclusive interview with Director Damschroder tomorrow at 6 p.m. on News 5.
Gov. Mike DeWine appointed Damschroder as director of ODJFS July 2. He had been acting as interim director since Kimberly Henderson announced she was relocating in March. He previously served as director of the Ohio Department of Administrative Services and Chief of Staff to then-Secretary of State Jon Husted.