CLEVELAND — Despite the number of Ohio workers filing new unemployment claims dropping, many underemployed and unemployed workers said they are still waiting for the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services to process their claims.
Cutting & trimming
After News 5 started asking questions, Jeffrey Baker, 60, said he finally received unemployment benefits from the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services.
Baker said he applied for help in January after struggling for months to make ends meet.
"I’m at a loss. I never thought I’d go through this," Baker said. "It’s crazy.”
A longtime hairdresser, Baker said his client base at Marengo Luxury Spa in The Arcade in Downtown Cleveland has dropped by 80% since the pandemic.
"I was okay living off my savings," he said. "But November, December was not good at all. It was way off."
Baker said he then applied for unemployment assistance. He said he repeatedly tried to contact the state for help with his claim but said it is nearly impossible to reach anyone over the phone.
In the meantime, Baker cut his budget to only necessities.
“I’m just doing roof over my head, electric, food, you know," he said.
Baker said he even stopped paying for his cell phone to help save money.
Overwhelmed & understaffed
Lt. Gov. John Husted said the state's unemployment system was unprepared for the unprecedented surge in claims from the pandemic.
"The system is overwhelmed and they’re going to make mistakes," he said. "It’s not acceptable."
When the pandemic began in March 2020, Ohio's unemployment rate had been low for several years.
As a result, Husted said there were only 44 workers in the state's unemployment department.
Like many states, he said Ohio was also using an antiquated computer system that was unable to keep up with the unprecedented surge in new filings from the pandemic.
“We just were not prepared for, in this nation, for the circumstances that we faced," he said.
As of April 1, 3,152,661 new unemployment claims had been filed since the start of the pandemic, according to Ohio Jobs and Family Services spokesperson Tom Betti.
To put that into perspective, the number is more than the combined total of new unemployment claims filed from 2013-2019.
The fraud factor
As the state scrambled to quickly train new staff members and set them up to work remotely, another serious issue with Ohio's unemployment claims emerged.
Fake claims have become a real problem.
As of April 1, the state estimated it has paid at least $330 million in fraudulent unemployment payments last year.
The U.S. Department of Labor estimates at least $63 billion was paid in improper payments to con artists, cyber gangs, and international crime rings.
Cybercrime experts that News 5 talked to said those estimates are low and the amount of misspent money is likely much higher.
Husted said high levels of unemployment fraud have been "one of the greatest sources of frustration for me during this entire pandemic."
Ohio has signed agreements with several companies, including Google, IBM, and Experian to root out fraudulent claims.
'Covid is scaring them'
"In the meantime, people are hurting, you know," said Baker.
Baker said he used to work as many as seven days a week, booking appointments whenever clients wanted a haircut.
Now, he said he can only fill about two days worth of appointments.
Baker said business travelers and tourists staying at the nearby Hyatt Regency Cleveland were a key part of his clientele that has completely disappeared since the pandemic.
In the meantime, many of his older clients refuse to travel downtown.
"COVID is scaring them," he said. "I get it."