COLUMBUS, Ohio—Ohio Department of Job and Family Services Director Kimberly Henderson faced pointed questions from state lawmakers Thursday about ongoing delays and fraud within the state’s unemployment benefits system.
Henderson, who testified for almost two hours before the legislature’s Unemployment Compensation Modernization and Improvement Council, offered explanations – and, in many cases, apologies – for the ongoing problems faced by the state’s unemployment office, which has come under unprecedented stress during the 11-month-long coronavirus crisis.
State Rep. Mark Fraizer, a Newark Republican, said it was “troubling” that, as of December, 40.4% of Ohioans applying for unemployment benefits waited more than 70 days to get them.
Henderson said those numbers “don’t reflect the complexity of the claims,” suggesting that the delays were due in part to people providing incorrect information.
She added that 1% of claims filed last March, at the start of the coronavirus crisis, have still not been processed – meaning they have not yet been approved or denied. Henderson said those outstanding benefits claims from March are not “simple” ones to address, though she said the number of those claims is “still too high.”
Henderson also said the average wait time for the unemployment system’s call center right now is 34 minutes. While that’s better than wait times last summer, state Rep. Derek Merrin, a Toledo-area Republican, expressed disappointment.
“If this system is truly working, it should be less than 34 minutes,” Merrin said.
When Henderson said that, “regrettably,” the state’s unemployment office hasn’t yet responded to every email sent to it, Merrin replied: “I think it would bother most everyone on this council to think that potentially someone in Ohio sent an email to a state agency in April, and they’re not even sure it’s been read or received by, you know, February the next year.”
Henderson said that many Ohioans who filed for benefits under the new federal coronavirus relief package, passed last December, are now getting paid, which should reduce call volume. However, Henderson added that she anticipates the number of calls will go up again in March, when the latest round of federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance payments is set to end.
Henderson said when the pandemic arose in Ohio, her office didn’t even have a call center – the same people who answered the phone also processed the claims. In addition, she said, staffing levels were comparatively low at the beginning of the pandemic because the economy was doing so well.
Unlike past recessions, Henderson said, the coronavirus crisis hit almost overnight, giving her agency very little time to expand drastically to handle the volume of claims.
The public-health crisis also forced state officials to find different ways of reaching out to laid-off workers, she said. In the past, she said, if General Motors closed a plant, ODJFS would send rapid-response teams to the factory to help people in person.
“The virtual unemployment office was not a model that existed,” she said.
Henderson fielded similar questions from lawmakers last May about why tens of thousands of Ohioans thrown out of work because of the coronavirus crisis faced delays getting benefits.
Another issue is that the state’s unemployment office uses a computer system that dates back to 2004. Henderson said a years-long effort to replace those computers with a cloud-based system is expected to be completed in November 2022.
Lawmakers also questioned Henderson about the large amount of fraudulent unemployment claims being filed in Ohio. Last year, Ohio paid out at least $331 million in fraudulent PUA claims; last week, scammers filed tens of thousands of traditional unemployment claims.
State Sen. Bill Reineke, a Tiffin Republican, said he was “really perplexed” why the state paid so much money in bogus claims.
Henderson replied that there was a “leaning,” both at the federal and state level, to prioritize issuing benefits as quickly as possible during the coronavirus crisis over taking the time to carefully scrutinize each claim.
“It’s a competing balancing of interests,” Henderson said, adding that her agency is “examining” its review process.