A year into pandemic, some Ohio workers' wait for unemployment benefits drags on

Mark Williams
The Columbus Dispatch
Bassist Michael Nixon has been unemployed since December, and late unemployment benefits caused him to receive an eviction notice in March. His benefits arrived just in time for him to pay rent.

Like other frustrated workers trying to collect unemployment benefits, Michael Nixon called the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services two or three times a week for months trying to get information on the status of his unemployment benefits.

"Every day, I look at the account and there's nothing," the 57-year-old Columbus man said.

Nixon first applied for benefits in December, the first time he has ever applied for unemployment benefits. In January, the state requested additional information on his application that he provided.

The benefits finally began last week, but the delay left him anxious and on the verge of being homeless, he said.

Unemployment fraud:False claims continue to run rampant in Ohio unemployment system

He was four months behind on rent and received an eviction notice from his landlord.

"I am increasingly freaking out over the very good possibility I will be evicted, homeless and sleeping in my car on my birthday on April 26," he said before receiving the good news about his benefits.

Tax break for the unemployed:Stimulus plan exempts $10,200 of unemployment benefits

Problems with system, documents, fraud date back to beginning of pandemic

Lengthy delays in collecting unemployment benefits for some workers have been an issue throughout the pandemic.

Initially, there were delays in getting some of the federal programs set up in Ohio to provide benefits for independent contractors, the self-employed and other workers not eligible for traditional unemployment programs.

The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, which administers unemployment aid in Ohio, was swamped with pandemic claims under the state's traditional unemployment system to begin with. Add in the new federal programs, and the agency was ill-equipped with manpower and technology to handle so many claims.

Problems with fraudulent claims have run into the hundreds of thousands. Many workers with existing claims have seen their cases flagged because of fraud.

Stories of fraud:Ohio couple victims of massive fraud tied to unemployment claims in multiple states

On top of that, there could be problems verifying a particular individual's claim. Multiple individuals have said they have repeatedly provided documents to the agency. 

The agency says it's able to process two-thirds of all new claims for payments within three weeks. Last September, it was one-third.

Beyond that, each claim is different; some can be handled quickly while others require additional information, the agency said.

Ohioans in need of benefits turn to Legal Aid

As was the case for Nixon, unemployment benefits have been vital to surviving the coronavirus, workers say.

"We've seen it all. When you don't have any income, it's going to impact everything else," said Kristy Michel, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Columbus who has been helping people with their unemployment claims.

Ways to get help:Legal Aid sees surge in clients fighting for unemployment benefits due to pandemic

Unemployment cases Legal Aid is handling have surged 600% compared with the period before the pandemic, she said.

Statewide, it's 400% among the various legal aid groups, according to the Ohio Access to Justice Foundation, a nonprofit group that provides funding for the agencies.

That workers continue to struggle to receive timely benefits shows just how severe the problem is a year after the pandemic started, she said.

"There are still more cases out there than there should be," Michel said.

Workers come to Legal Aid for help to sort out the confusion among the various notes they get from Job and Family Services, and for help when their claims are denied, she said.

"A lot of individuals don't know what's going on," she said.

Unemployed rely on temporary jobs, food stamps

All of this is little comfort to people such as Nixon, however, who fears that unemployed workers are a short step away from becoming homeless if their benefits don't arrive on time.

Nixon was working as a musician in Europe when the pandemic broke out, playing bass for several groups. That work ended when entertainment venues shut down because of the pandemic.

He returned home and landed a temporary job with Columbus Public Health, a job that ended at the end of November.

Nixon, who plays under the name Myke Rock, was able to collect food stamps to help.

More:Ohio's unemployed grow desperate as they wait for jobless benefits to resume

It frustrates Nixon that money is available but some struggle to get access to it for weeks or months.

There are people "who are literally just weeks and days away from being homeless knowing that there's money that has been allocated," he said. "It's just blows my mind."

Nixon needs benefits for just a few months. He expects to resume playing professionally in September.

"By then, I'm completely fine on my own," he said.

James Albanese, 73, of Canal Winchester, said his unemployment benefits were flagged and stopped in October for he and his wife, Bridget, 70.

"I really could use that. We still have bills and a mortgage and we have to pay it," he said.

The couple are in the amusement business and travel around to county fairs and festivals, which have been mostly shut down because of the coronavirus.

After months of waiting, he, too, found that his payments are resuming, but not for his wife.