Encountering the Beast

Make an unemployment claim in Ohio and discover how bad government can be.

Mountain Goats, with John Vanderslice The Grog Shop Sunday, November 3
Ohio's unemployment offices failed to answer 460,000 - phone calls last December. This was an improvement - over the year before.
Ohio's unemployment offices failed to answer 460,000 phone calls last December. This was an improvement over the year before.

Richard Kwiatkowski possesses that most honorable Midwestern trait: He's a good worker. "He spent six years in one job, so obviously the supervisor was happy with his performance," says his brother David, a retired Cleveland cop.

But last spring, Richard got laid off from a factory shipping department, where he worked through Kelly Services. He filed for unemployment, but he wasn't about to slack. For weeks, he called Kelly to find new work. Meanwhile, David shuttled him to more than 40 job interviews.

Getting hired doesn't come easy to Richard. He's schizophrenic. "They have certain mannerisms, and some people don't want to hire him," says David. "Here's a young man who won honors in the military, and he gets turned down for a dishwasher job. He needs to have a job and a purpose."

One day Kelly called. It had a six-hour shift available, a one-time shot. Richard would have grabbed it, but he lives in Lakewood, the job was in Berea, and his car wasn't running.

Kelly took this as a refusal to work and sent a letter saying as much to the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services, which promptly cut off Richard's unemployment. It didn't check out the situation. It didn't ask for Richard's explanation. He was guilty till proven innocent. Thus began the Kwiatkowski brothers' tortured encounter with the worst agency in Ohio.

David filed an appeal on behalf of his brother. Jobs and Family, as it's prone to do, lost the paperwork. Which meant the appeal was late. Which meant Richard's benefits were gone. But the agency never bothered to tell him any of this. Richard was just supposed to figure it out by the lack of response.

So David filed another appeal, this time to appeal the denial of his first appeal. It took months for the department to acknowledge it lost his initial paperwork. It took months more to rule that, yes, Richard had a good reason to turn down that six-hour shift. He would now receive unemployment for the week in question. But if he wanted to get the money he was entitled to since then, he would have to -- you guessed it -- file another appeal.

So over a six-month period, Richard was left to live on a total of $241.

"I have never had to deal with anything like this in my life," says David. "It took us six months to come to a resolution on one incident, and we're still not done. Someone that didn't have the time and the ability to continue to pound away at this wouldn't have gotten anywhere."

In fact, David wouldn't have gotten anywhere either, were it not for the intervention of Congressman Dennis Kucinich. Workers in his Lakewood office say they do a brisk business just trying to get state agencies to do right by those they allegedly serve. Jobs and Family, presumably the most important, since it deals with the most important things in life -- jobs and families -- is the worst.

Put the blame on Bob Taft.

Early in his governorship, he decided to combine the Bureau of Employment Services with the Department of Human Services. At the time, big mergers were the rage on Wall Street, and Bob had been hired to bring the magic of the private sector to government. So he thought that by melding two large, ineffectual bureaucracies, he would naturally create one lean, streamlined machine. That's just sound math.

Bob was thinking outside the box. Yes-men slapped his back and talked about "synergy," pleased they could finally use the cool words they saw in Forbes. And Bob basked in his triumph, for he was now living up to the Taft legacy of marginally distinguished public service.

But as it turns out, two large piles of excrement don't necessarily make one pearl necklace. Who would have thought?

Today, the story of Jobs and Family Services should be required reading for anyone entering politics. Consider the highlights:

" In a one-month period beginning last December, its unemployment offices failed to answer 460,000 phone calls -- which was actually an improvement from the year before, when it blew off up to 800,000 calls a week.

" The department improperly swiped child-support back payments and tax refunds that were supposed to go to thousands of parents.

" It's been fined $17 million by the feds for continually relaying late and incorrect child-support payments.

" It illegally handed out $87 million in unbid welfare reform and case-tracking contracts.

" It had to scrap a $60 million job-matching system because no one could get the damn thing to work.

" And this summer, the U.S. Department of Labor found that, though Ohio receives the second-most federal funding for job placement and training in the Midwest, its record of providing actual services is the worst.

Mary Lynch wouldn't be surprised by any of this. She was laid off from her nanny job June 15, so she applied for unemployment by phone. But the agency managed to thoroughly screw up her work history. So according to its befuddled records, Mary spent only three days on the job. Unemployment denied. It took seven weeks -- and the intervention of Kucinich -- to finally get her first check.

Mary fared better than her neighbor. It took him a year to get his check.

Stories like these are legion, and they will continue to mount. Fact is, the state stopped caring about working people long ago, and even if it did care, it's too inept to help. So the jobless are left to summon Kucinich just to get their due. To draw the ever-popular private-sector analogy, it's akin to hiring Burger King to get your order straight at McDonald's. The only way around it: Don't get laid off. Because if you do . . .

Hi. You have reached the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services. If you'd like to be randomly disconnected, press 1. If you'd like to receive misinformation or have your paperwork lost, press 2. If you'd like to starve while we take months screwing up your claim, press 3. For all other questions, please hold. An operator will be with you by February.

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