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Feds release unemployment guidance, could be a long time before supplements reach Ohioans

Marty Schladen, Ohio Capital Journal

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Crystal Hererra, 30, sits for a portrait in the passenger seat of her husband’s car as they wait in the drive-through pickup area of the All People’s Fresh Market food pantry in Columbus, Ohio on July 28, 2020. Hererra’s husband has been receiving the $600 weekly unemployment bonus subsidy that has been helping to support Crystal and their five children. (Brooke LaValley/ Ohio Capital Journal)

As promised, the U.S. Department of Labor last week released guidance to the states on how it will disburse money to supplement unemployment checks. But it’s far from clear when — or whether — hundreds of thousands of out-of-work Ohioans will see those funds.

A $600-a-week federal supplement had been credited with keeping millions of unemployed Americans — and the economy — afloat, but it expired at the end of July.

The Democrat-controlled House passed an extension of the benefit. The Republican-controlled Senate introduced a bill cutting the supplement to $200 a week, but failed to pass it.

Then President Donald Trump on Aug. 8 signed a memorandum that would repurpose federal disaster relief funds to provide $300 a week in additional support. But it would exclude people getting less than $100 a week in state benefits — a group comprising many minimum-wage workers and service workers who get a low hourly wage and tips on top of that.

The administration of Gov. Mike DeWine signed on to the plan on Monday, saying that additional guidance was needed from the Labor Department before any predictions could be made about when funds would be disbursed.

The money can’t come quickly enough for many Ohioans.

According to the U.S. Census’ Household Pulse Survey for the week of July 9-14, nearly 1 million Ohio adults sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the past week. In addition, more than 400,000 hadn’t paid the previous month’s rent and 360,000 homeowners hadn’t made the previous month’s mortgage payment.

“This is before the $600 (federal unemployment supplement) expired,” Zach Schiller, research director for the think tank Policy Matters Ohio, said.

Earlier in the week, DeWine also underscored the urgency of getting money out to unemployed Ohioans. He praised Trump for taking the actions he did and he called on Congress to get busy — something that’s unlikely to happen until early September at the soonest.

However, state officials have to clear several hurdles before they can start distributing the federal dollars Trump has attempted to repurpose.

For example, “States will need to develop a self-certification process in accordance with FEMA instructions for claimants to certify weekly that they are unemployed or partially unemployed due to disruptions caused by COVID-19,” the Labor Department guidance says.

And state officials will have to reprogram antiquated, overwhelmed unemployment systems to process the benefit.

“We are examining the DOL guidance on lost wages assistance to see what kind of system programming is needed in order to pay these unemployment benefits,” Dan Teirney, DeWine’s press secretary, said in an email. “As noted in the guidance, all states are required to develop a self-certification process for claimants based on instructions from FEMA.”

He said that once state officials figure all that out, they’ll make beneficiaries whole, but it’s hard to know when that will be.

“While (the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services) intends to pay these retroactive benefits as quickly and efficiently as possible, there are several procedural and programming steps that must take place before that can happen,” Tierney said.

There is also a serious question about whether the Trump plan is legal. Georgetown University law professor David Super last week wrote that it is a clear violation of the Stafford Act, the federal law governing disaster assistance.

Schiller criticized the scheme as ill-conceived at a time when so many Ohioans are in desperate need of assistance.

“Altogether, the whole thing is kind of a half-baked measure,” he said.

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