6 months, still no unemployment benefits for Tri-State woman

Local woman trapped in unemployment maze since April
Published: Feb. 23, 2021 at 5:07 PM EST|Updated: Jun. 2, 2021 at 11:28 AM EDT
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CINCINNATI (FOX19) - Celia Baker has worked at the Olive Garden in Colerain Township for 32 years.

She was furloughed on March 13 when restaurants were shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everybody, we’re locking down,” Baker said her manager told the workers. “They’re locking all the restaurants down for the pandemic. Go home. Be safe. And file for unemployment.”

In April, Baker says she tried to file for unemployment but was told to wait until May because the system was overloaded.

“Well, it was a nightmare,” Baker said.

Baker doesn’t have a computer, so her daughter helped her apply online. She says she answered all the questions, step by step, provided her driver’s license, social security information, tax documentation and more.

Then in mid-May, Baker received an e-mail which said that she was eligible for weekly Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits. It spelled out the amount she would receive per week. It also said it was in addition to Pandemic Unemployment Compensation benefits.

“Terrific,” Baker said. “I thought my God I did qualify. I’m glad I tried.”

The money was going to help Baker pay for her medications. But two weeks later came another e-mail, saying that her claim could not be processed until she verified her identity.

“Well right then and there is like, what the hell?” Baker said.

She said she started to go through the appeal process in June and it hasn’t ended.

“I call the hotline every day,” Baker said.

She says she has spent hours on the phone, trying to find out whether her appeal will be approved. She says she called Congressman Steve Chabot’s office, who directed her to State Representative Cindy Abrams. Baker says Abrams hasn’t responded to three calls for help. She says this entire ordeal has robbed her joy.

“I never done anything wrong in my life,” Baker said. “I’ve done everything right. By the rules of life, nature. I work very hard on my life. I’m an American citizen. I have a passport that is current. I have a great record of work. A loyalty for my job for 32 years. People love me. What have I done wrong for this to happen to me?”

Celia did get some good news. She was just called back to Olive Garden where she’ll work a few hours a week.

Baker is one of the thousands whose unemployment claims are still pending. The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services provided FOX19 NOW with a breakdown:

Unduplicated applications: 1,398,178

  • Approved: 872,625 (62.4%)
  • Denied: 422,246 (30.2%)
  • Withdrawn: 25,946 (1.9%)
  • Pending: 77,361 (5.5%)

ODJFS Director Kimberly Hall calls many of these cases complex and says the office is doing everything it can.

“I express my deepest regrets that they have experienced this challenge as a result of our sudden need to respond to the pandemic in the way that we did, and basically dedicate my full support to understanding the complexity of their claim,” Hall said.

ODJFS officials say the majority of pending claims have at least one issue requiring further investigation. The most common issues are:

  • Identity verification
  • Monetary weeks and wages
  • Prior claim issues
  • Interstate claims
  • Allowable separation (i.e., ensuring that the claimant is unemployed because of a lack of work, and not because they quit or were discharged)
  • Deductible income (which must be taken into account if the claimant is working part-time)
  • Overpayments
  • Fraud
  • The requirement that claimants be able and available for work.

ODJFS has extended its call center hours to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sundays

Their advice to people expecting calls is to save the main unemployment phone number in their contacts as “Ohio Unemployment” to prevent any calls from going directly to voicemail. The number that should be saved is 1-877-644-6562 (1-877-OHIO-JOB).

For those who feel they have to call, ODJFS says call volume is significant lower on weekends so it’s best to try them then.

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