Friday, October 23

Restaurant Workers Struggle to Access Unemployment Aid, Get Back on Their Feet

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This piece originally appeared in The Land and appears here with their permission. 

by Jordan Walker

Kimberly Rodriguez is an accomplished veteran of Cleveland’s food scene. She has worked as a department manager at a grocery store, a personal chef for professional athletes, an event planner, and an instructor in restaurants, cafes and markets.

Yet, the last two weeks of March were the most stressful of her life. She contracted Covid-19 and lost her job. Like many restaurant workers thrown into financial uncertainty, Rodriguez now deals with federal and state unemployment systems ill-equipped to handle her plight.

She’d been working for nine months as a front-of-house manager at a local chain restaurant in Cleveland Heights when Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s shutdown order closed indoor dining rooms in March. The restaurant still provided takeout and delivery and Rodriguez continued to work there more than 40 hours per week as the pandemic spread. “Customers were just extremely demanding and not taking responsibility for their own well-being and care,” she says.

Then, on March 29th, she got a fever and called in sick. She ended up being out for two weeks because her fevers recurred every day or every other day, rising to 104 degrees and once even peaking at 107 degrees. After she’d reached her maximum sick time, she lost her job.

“I received maybe three lines in an email from my boss saying they gave me the maximum amount of paid time off, and that I was going to have to apply for unemployment now,” she says. She received a code to apply through the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services (ODJFS) and was given up to a month of paid healthcare.

Kimberly Rodriguez photo courtesy Karin McKenna

After being diagnosed with Covid-19, Rodriguez found herself jobless, rejected from federal unemployment aid, and stripped of the employer-sponsored health insurance that provided medical care for both she and her wife, Alexia.

“It threw my life into complete chaos. I lost my job, I lost my healthcare, and I didn’t see my daughter for almost four months because she stayed with her father while I was in isolation; I mean it really just changed everything,” Rodriguez says.

Rodriguez applied for unemployment assistance from the state of Ohio, but her application was rejected. Although she’s now mostly recovered, she still suffers from fatigue. She recently landed her “dream job” as the part-time director of Meals on Wheels in Shaker Heights and works as a private chef on the side, but she is earning half the income that she made before – and she’s not sure when or if she’ll be able to get health care again.

“Now I am basically thrown back into the gig economy, going from gig to gig and supplementing it with my part time job at a nonprofit,” Rodriguez says as she lets out a laugh. “This wasn’t the way I thought this year was going to go.”

Ironically, as Congress struggles to come to agreement on the next round of coronavirus relief aid, many restaurant workers say they didn’t receive the help they needed the first time. With ODJFS overwhelmed by applications, many are still waiting to receive unemployment. Additionally, the state’s fraud crackdown is harming those needing benefits, social service advocates say.

Bret Crow, a spokesperson for ODJFS, says the number of applications that have inundated the agency since the shutdown is unprecedented, more than the last four years combined. He says that the department has done their best to make adjustments to cope with the influx of claims, including hiring more staff, expanding call center hours, and improving their website. While more than 1.2 million Ohioans have received over $10 billion in unemployment benefits, more than 1.6 million people have applied and there are still thousands of applications pending, he says.

“The system was not designed to handle the historic influx of claims like we’ve experienced since March,” he says. “Before the pandemic hit, we had recognized that it was time to update the technology, and we were already working on that.”

An overwhelmed system 

Rodriguez’s story is not uncommon, says Zach Schiller, Research Director at Policy Matters Ohio. Ohio’s unemployment system is “worse” than others around the country because part-time and low-wage workers, including many restaurant workers, often aren’t eligible for aid. Additionally, the massive influx of applications during the pandemic created a backlog. Even though ODJFS added more than 1,000 new workers to answer calls after the pandemic struck, there are still problems with the system.

Ohio’s traditional unemployment aid is regulated by an earnings test that is less generous than most states. It requires applicants to rake in a weekly income of at least $269. For restaurant workers that primarily rely on tips, and for many part-time and minimum wage workers, getting approved was difficult before the pandemic. When the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program expanded eligibility, hundreds of thousands of people applied. Advocacy groups including Policy Matters Ohio, the Ohio Organizing  Collaborative and Ohio Association of Foodbanks have called on the state legislature to fix the system. They urged the Senate to take up House Bill 614, which recently passed the House, to study and reform the unemployment system.

“Our unemployment system was ill-prepared for the avalanche of claims that descended when these stay-at-home orders started in march,” Schiller says. “Even now, there are eighty thousand Ohioans who have pending claims for traditional unemployment that have not been getting processed. There are more than two hundred thousand Ohioans who have pending claims for PUA that have not been processed.”

Ohio’s system is confusing because individuals in Ohio must apply for either traditional unemployment aid or the PUA, but applying for one does not make you eligible for the other, adds Mason Pesek, staff attorney with The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland. PUA applications are automatically rejected if the applicant has a pending application for regular unemployment aid. As a result, some people have been waiting months on a determination of their aid eligibility, and a technical hiccup could mean they’re on their own.

“The reality of the current situation is that all these systems are so overloaded that people fall between the cracks, mistakes are made, and there are big issues on the backend,” Pesek says.

Ohio isn’t the only state that has faced problems with its unemployment system. A recent Brookings Foundation blog post cites research by the Century Foundation that by the end of May, only about 18.8 million out of 33 million claims (57 percent) had been paid nationwide, causing hardship for many. “Efforts could be made to improve the functioning of the UI system so  applications can be processed and checks delivered more quickly,” write authors Manuel Alcalá Kovalski and Louise Sheiner.

Rodriguez would have been eligible for payments of $1,000 every week for fourteen weeks if approved. However, after five weeks of receiving no response, she finally received one payment of $1,000. Then ODJFS notified her that her application was rejected and she would have to return the one payment she received. “I was not given a reason,” she says. “I submitted an appeal and I still haven’t heard back.”

Treading water to stay afloat

She’s not alone in facing the difficulties of navigating the state’s unemployment system in a pandemic, and even for those who are back at work, they’ve returned to an industry forever changed by Covid-19. More than 50 percent of restaurants are not expecting to make it nine months if the virus continues unabated, according a recent survey by the Ohio Restaurant Association, and restaurant workers not making as much money due to limited hours and lower tips from decreased business.

Veteran pastry chef Traci Morrison had to wait a month for her unemployment compensation after she was furloughed on March 23rd from her full-time job as a specialty baker with Campbell’s Sweets Factory. Morrison, who baked and decorated all of the cupcakes for Campbell’s and was in charge of cupcake displays at different locations in Northeast Ohio, was eventually called back to work part-time. However, this dissolved all of her employer-sponsored health benefits and unemployment compensation and slashed her hours from over 40 to no more than 18 per week.

“The number of cupcakes I’m baking just keeps getting smaller, and smaller, and smaller,” says Morrison, who is looking for a rare full-time job with benefits in the restaurant scene. “It’s hard. I feel like my depression is just kind of creeping in because my schedule changes day to day and some days I just wake up and think ‘what’s next?’”

Morrison reapplied for part-time unemployment aid, but is still waiting for a determination on her application. “It’s just a waiting game and all of my savings are basically going towards everyday expenses,” she says.

Like Rodriguez, Anthony Gregorio contracted Covid-19 in late March and is still waiting on his unemployment determination from ODJFS.

Gregorio, who has worked in the Cleveland restaurant scene for twenty-two years, quit his job as a server at the beginning of March for personal reasons. Right when he started applying for jobs at the end of the month, he became ill. On March 27th, he tested positive for the coronavirus. Because he has asthma, he ended up having to go to the hospital because he couldn’t breathe. It took him three days of constant oxygen and steroids to finally recover.

Because he had Covid-19, he can apply for PUA benefits, but he didn’t find out about the program until after he’d already applied for regular unemployment benefits. Now he has to wait until after his application comes back to apply for PUA. It has been seven weeks since Gregorio applied for regular unemployment. When he was finally able to get through to someone at ODJFS, they told him that it was unlikely his application would be approved, but he probably wouldn’t get approved for more than $150 a week or barely enough to afford groceries.

“It’s ridiculous,” he says. “The only way I’ve made it through not having unemployment aid during quarantine is through the stimulus check — I don’t have any money.”

Gregorio is now working part-time at Planet Fitness, but is making “peanuts.” Rodriguez is also grateful to be working, but she’s still catching up from her months of being unemployed. “It’s just a really difficult spot to be in,” she says. “If I had just gotten a few weeks of that unemployment money, I would be fine — I would be totally set and not worried about anything.”

However, she still does not have employer-sponsored healthcare. Her wife is working full time as a chef at a restaurant where other full-time workers are offered spousal coverage, but Rodriguez says the employer declined to offer it to them. The couple has yet to talk to a lawyer.

In the meantime, she’s trying to stay healthy until she’s able to access healthcare again.

Rodriguez and Morrison both say they did not consider buying their own healthcare plans because of how expensive the market options are, applying for Medicaid instead. “I need to have some kind of healthcare in place, but without a steady cash flow right now, there is no way that I can search for something more substantial (than Medicaid) on my own,” Morrison says.

Schiller says Ohio’s problems should be a wake-up call for lawmakers, and force the necessary changes that would make the system sustainable in the long run. “We need a permanent system in which workers who work 20 hours a week can qualify for unemployment,” he says. “PUA needs to be institutionalized and made a part of the regular unemployment system. It would require an overhaul of the entire system on a long-term basis, but hopefully the extremely high levels of unemployment that we are seeing now will lead to a rethinking of the system.”

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