by Michelle Wrona Fox, managing attorney

Last summer we shared how changes in Ohio law were poised to do considerable damage to beneficiaries of unemployment compensation. This critical safety net benefit provides short-term income to workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own and are actively seeking work.

Effective April 2023, Senate Bill 302 increased the time the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) has to look back to review past unemployment claims and make a corrective action from 52 to 208 months. While some corrective actions determine there was an underpayment and result in a worker getting more money, the majority find that workers received too much money. This means that many unemployed workers who received what they believed were rightful UC payments up to four years ago can now be held liable to pay that money back.

As 2024 progresses, we are starting to see some ramifications of this new law en masse. In January 2024, ODJFS notified approximately 180,000 claimants informing them their case was reviewed and considered to be fraudulent and issued an overpayment of benefits. ODJFS acknowledged some of these may be legitimate and rightful claims, and legal aid advocates believe this is true for many people.

While any letter like this would be unsettling, the allegation of fraud in these notices adds teeth and brings a new round of challenges for recipients. With an adjudication of fraud, recipients are required to pay back the money they received in their time of need plus 25% interest. Additionally, they must serve penalty weeks barring them from benefits in the future. For every one week of fraud, they must wait two weeks before they are eligible again. Even cancellation of a debt that arises from unemployment compensation fraud is treated differently. Most UC debts cancel out after three years - but when fraud is involved, the debt can be collected for six. Finally, federal income tax refunds can be offset for debt arising from fraud and a civil lawsuit could possibly be filed to collect any remainder.

Many advocates question whether the fraud label was justified on the majority of these 180,000 letters. Perhaps the agency detected the risk of fraud, to some degree? In truth, many of the financial strategies used by our lowest income Ohioans can easily place them in the risk assessment - shared bank accounts, shared addresses, shared email addresses, online bank-like companies like Chime, or cash apps in place of checking accounts - may in fact be red flags for actual fraud. But aren’t these more often just tactics for getting by while living in poverty? In an attempt to sniff out fraud, has this round of determinations in essence targeted the very people who needed the benefits the most?

All this equates to big trouble for these tens of thousands of Ohio households, most of whom believed they were relying on rightful UC benefits issued during the pandemic and simply do not have the means to repay it.

As is usually the case in the benefits world, there are some simple steps recipients can take to safeguard their rights. As urged in the letters from ODJFS, recipients should follow the instructions to turn in the appropriate documents and file an appeal of the fraud determination and overpayment. Often, proof of identity is all that’s needed to untangle the confusion.

But there are some potential pitfalls for these households including:

  • Short appeal timelines: Recipients have just 21 days to preserve their right to an appeal. Many may panic because they don’t know if they can collect the necessary documents to make a full appeal. Advocates recommended recipients get their appeals submitted timely in the best form they are able and supplement with additional documents as needed. The most important document to submit is a person's State ID or Driver’s license.  This information may resolve the issue completely.  Once that 21 day limit tolls, the process becomes significantly more complicated - if not impossible - to navigate.
  • Communication challenges: In order to know of this issue and what’s required in response, claimants must actually receive and read communications from the agency. Many may have moved, sometimes multiple times, in the past four years. This is especially true for Ohio’s lowest income households who struggle with housing stability at higher rates. These moves present challenges in receiving mail via USPS. Others may have made special email accounts for agency communications that they no longer check or may even ignore emails from the agency thinking they are fraudulent or irrelevant. Many may have returned to work and past benefits received are not top of mind.

In response to this newest bump on the benefits roller coaster, legal aid advocates are communicating regularly with ODJFS. We’ve asked for more leniency and broader definitions of “good cause” for missing deadlines. We’ve recommended that communications from the agency include more specific information - for example, exactly what documents are required for a successful appeal. We are asking our community partners to spread the word broadly to the families they help. If recipients have returned to work, their new income may make them ineligible for legal aid services and they may be navigating these realities alone. The best advice - and you’ve heard it from us before - is to carefully read all your communications. And in this case, appeal as soon as possible even if the appeal is late.