Overwhelmed and underprepared, unemployment system fails Ohioans

Greg DeLaat canceled a job interview for a phone call that took eight months and two state lawmakers to nail down.

The 57-year-old Parma man owes at least $21,000 in unemployment benefits that he never received. Despite having a master's degree, DeLaat can't understand how he amassed this crushing debt.

DeLaat says he followed every direction he's received from the state unemployment office – even if answers were hard-fought. He once waited two hours for a call center supervisor to answer his questions only to have a lower-level staffer say one wasn't available. Click.

A partial screen shot of the homepage of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services website. Ohio's unemployment compensation system was overwhelmed and underprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic.

So when Parma Rep. Jeff Crossman's staff secured DeLaat a phone call with the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services to unsnarl his tangled knot, DeLaat cleared his afternoon.

A half an hour before the call, the state unemployment officials canceled. They needed more time to review the case. DeLaat was left with no job and no answers. 

DeLaat's experience embodies the exasperation, frustration and oftentimes, desperation that Ohioans seeking unemployment have felt over the past 18 months. The payments intended as a lifeline during an unprecedented global pandemic instead left Ohioans treading water, at best, or drowning, at worst.

An audit of the state's unemployment system released Thursday detailed how Ohioans were subjected to an unresponsive, overwhelming process despite being laid off through no fault of their own. 

“It is unacceptable that when the process is stressed, they are the ones that suffer," Ohio Auditor Keith Faber said.

It's clear that Ohio's unemployment system wasn't prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic. But something short of a once-in-a-lifetime health crisis could have exposed the same cracks in Ohio's underfunded, underequipped unemployment system.

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