We’ve all seen the headlines and social media posts about state unemployment systems that are inundated and struggling to keep up with unprecedented job losses during the current pandemic. And Ohio is no different. A worn-out and outdated unemployment system that was ill prepared to deal with a crisis of this magnitude is leaving OCSEA members in the Ohio Dept. of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) feeling overwhelmed, stressed out and worried for the customers they serve.
“Our OCSEA sisters and brothers in ODJFS are working long and tiring days to support Unemployment Services (UI) for newly unemployed Ohioans, and they are doing it with care and with dignity. But, they, too, are overwhelmed,” said OCSEA Vice Pres. Rocky Jolly.
Not only is staff feeling the weight of their customers in crisis, they are also feeling the stress of backlogs, unreliable technology and understaffing that only exacerbates the crisis. Panicked customers who continue to update their claims and call multiple times are also overwhelming the system.
And now, a new mandated work schedule and the elimination of flex schedules starting this week has UI Customer Service Representatives facing the daunting task of balancing work and home life in the midst of this unprecedented crisis.
This week’s mandation came without any input from the union, says ODJFS Assembly President Michelle Smith. ODJFS has mandated UI employees to work a set schedule from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., plus three hours of overtime every day during the hours of 7-8 a.m. and 5-7 p.m. They are also mandated to work four hours of overtime on Saturdays and encouraged to volunteer on Sundays to help reduce the backlog. All flex scheduling, which was beneficial to helping families during this “new normal,” has been discontinued until further notice.
Up until this point, many UI staff in ODJFS were already voluntarily working overtime to help out, said Michelle. “They were stepping up to do so. And others were able to flex their time. Overall, this helped staff with childcare, with appointments, and took the burden off people who can’t endure a 12-hour day,” she said. The union has filed a grievance on the unreasonable schedule management is imposing.
“Since the day the governor announced the stay-at-home order, we’ve been working tirelessly to catch up,” said Michelle. “We are a lot of things to a lot of people. We do our best to get people paid, yes, but we are also social workers and counselors, and we direct them where to get help in their community and what their next steps will be. We try to make lemonade out of lemons,” said Michelle. “All we ask in return is an investment in our workforce, so we can continue to give Ohioans the services they deserve.”
Nearly 22 million Americans have filed unemployment claims in the past four weeks, with over 850,000 filings in Ohio alone. To put that in perspective, the number of unemployment claims filed in Ohio last month is nearly 140,000 OVER the total number of claims filed in the state during the past two years. The unprecedented influx has exposed a number of issues crippling state unemployment insurance programs at a time when communities need them most. Tragically, tax cuts for the wealthy instead of investing in workers over the past decades have eroded our ability to respond to crises like this one.
Michelle, who is skilled in claims in-take and processing as well as reemployment training, says the number of professionals who know the ends-and outs of these specialized services, including the laws and regulations, has been slashed over the last 20 years. “I thank those sisters and brothers who have stepped up to help with triage, pin resets and the like, to get us through this; but what we’re ultimately looking at is a decimation of skilled workers; only a skeleton crew remains,” she said.