Ohio urged to relax unemployment penalties during virus


By J Swygart - jswygart@limanews.com



LAKEVIEW – Six years ago, Dustin Ragland found himself temporarily out of work. After a few weeks of drawing state unemployment benefits, Ragland got a call from his employer at a construction-related business.

“He said he had a big job that needed done. When I asked him how that would affect my unemployment, he said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’”

After Ragland worked for a portion of the week and failed to report his earnings, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services flagged him for what it perceived as attempted fraud. The Lakeview man subsequently repaid all excess funds he had received from the state, in addition to a hefty financial penalty, and the matter was closed.

Or so Ragland believed. That momentary lapse in judgment would prove to have severe ramifications years later.

When Ragland — who since had changed jobs and now works “on the administrative side” of a regional trucking company — was laid off March 20 due to a downturn in business caused by the novel coronavirus, he filed for unemployment. It was only then that he learned a 14-week penalty imposed by the state would lead to a denial of all jobless benefits – including the additional $600-per-week federal stipend that most unemployed Ohioans are receiving — for the next three-plus months.

The penalty, in Ragland’s eyes, seems a little excessive.

“I accept the responsibility for what happened, but this was not done intentionally. I paid the state back what I owed them, but it seems like they’re poking me in the eye with a sharp stick,” Ragland said Monday.

With no money coming in, “It’s been a struggle. I’m two months behind on my electricity, my rent and my car payment. I hate being in this position, and I know I’m not alone,” he said.

A petition started by an Akron woman in equally dire financial straits asks Ohio lawmakers to waive penalty weeks during the pandemic. The petition is online at j.mp/3fET87d.

According to various media outlets, California is allowing those serving penalty weeks to collect some federal funds, and New York is proposing a bill that would suspend the penalties as well.

Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, D-Howland, last week urged Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Department of Job & Family Services Director Kimberly Hall to review policies for Ohioans filing for unemployment assistance.

“I write to urge you to review the implementation of penalty weeks during this COVID-19 pandemic to ensure individuals are not inadvertently harmed for unintentional mistakes during a time when they need this help the most,” Ryan wrote. “I think there must be a balance between protecting the integrity of the system while not harming the very individuals these benefits were designed to help.”

A statement from the office of Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said, “Senator Brown supports Congressman Ryan’s request for a review of penalty weeks from the state, to ensure Ohioans are not harmed by mistakes from their past that have been paid off. Brown believes we need to ensure Ohioans struggling during this time have the assistance they need to feed their families and keep a roof over their head.”

State Rep. Bob Cupp, R-Lima, on Monday said he was unaware that unemployment penalty weeks were being imposed by the state.

“I haven’t had any emails or phone calls on this, but it’s something I’ll have to look up,” Cupp said.

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By J Swygart

jswygart@limanews.com

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