Human services chief: jobless claims came 'in a tsunami'

COLUMBUS (AP) — Ohio faced an unprecedented surge in unemployment claims almost overnight as the pandemic led to widespread business shutdowns, leaving the state no time to retool its system to respond, the state's human services chief said Wednesday as she testified before Republican lawmakers critical of the state's reaction.

State officials in at least two other states, Arkansas and Wisconsin, responded to similar complaints in legislative testimony Wednesday.

In contrast to the Great Recession beginning in 2008 when jobless claims arrived gradually, the recent layoffs came immediately "in a tsunami," Kimberly Hall, director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, told the House Ways and Means Committee.

At the same time, because jobless numbers were so low more recently, the agency's unemployment staffing had been reduced, Hall said.

“This experience has been unlike anything any of us have ever witnessed,” Hall said.

The state had only about 550 people in its unemployment office when the pandemic started and only 40 full-time agents in its call center, Hall said. The state now has 1,250 part-time and full-time call center agents.

Ohio has also been hobbled by the benefit system and call center's antiquated technology, Hall said.

Ways and Means committee members have heard from many people across Ohio in recent weeks who had problems receiving their unemployment checks, said Rep. Derek Merrin, the committee's chairman, a Republican from Moncolva in northwestern Ohio.

Breanna Holland is a 23-year-old restaurant server in Marysville in central Ohio who lost her job when her restaurant shut down in March as a result of the state's stay-at-home order. She told the committee last week of her frustration over several weeks challenging the state's initial denial of her claim.

“I could not reach a person. I could not leave a message. There was no call queue,” Holland said. She said she finally received benefits after reaching out to her state representative for help.

Merrin criticized the state's preparation and response, saying the high volume of calls was the result of a broken website that should have been addressed before the pandemic hit. He also questioned why callers who wait for hours on the phone only to be disconnected aren't immediately called back.

“We’re in 2020 — how do we not have a phone system that appropriately works?” Merrin said.

Hall agreed that the website is problematic and said it's in the process of being revamped. She agreed that the hang-ups were frustrating and the problem is being examined.

More than 1.2 million people filed jobless claims in the past nine weeks, more than the combined total in the past three years, the agency said last week as it provided the most recent unemployment claims figures.

The state has paid out more than $2.8 billion in state funds to date along with more than $21 million from the federal Pandemic Unemployment Act. Ohio's unemployment rate hit 16.8% last month, the highest since the state began its current record-keeping system in 1976.

In Wisconsin, Republicans accused Department of Workforce Development Secretary Caleb Frostman of not being prepared for the surge in claims and not doing enough when it arrived.

Frostman, a member of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' administration, recommended the state update its computer systems, increase the weekly unemployment benefit and permanently do away with a one-week waiting period to receive benefits.

Arkansas unemployment agency officials were also testifying Wednesday about problems setting up that state's system for distributing federal unemployment dollars and about a breach that caused the system to shut down.

Complaints about the handling of unemployment claims have dogged officials across the country, including in Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma, where the director of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission resigned last week as the unemployment agency has been the target of complaints of jobless claims going unpaid.

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Associated Press writers Summer Ballentine in Jefferson City, Missouri; Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin;, Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Arkansas; John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas; Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City; and Brian Witte in Annapolis, Maryland, contributed to this report.