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What state leaders get wrong about Ohioans who haven't returned to work

Cutting that extra $300 weekly check is aimed to get people back to work. But that argument doesn't account for the actual reasons many Ohioans haven't returned to their pre-pandemic jobs.
Unemployment workers 06022021
Krista Spiker of Austintown is one of the many who will lose the extra $300 in unemployment at the end of the month. Spiker, a COVID-19 long-hauler, has mounting medical bills and is looking at an uncertain financial future. (Robert K. Yosay/Mahoning Matters)
AUSTINTOWN — Gov. Mike DeWine's administration has painted an unflattering portrait of some Ohio workers who continue to receive extra pandemic unemployment cash — which the state will cut at the end of the month. 

The image looks like this: These Ohioans are restaurant workers or retail employees whose unemployment checks amount to more than their minimum wage paychecks. They refuse to return to work, dodging the calls of their desperate employers who are so under-staffed they risk losing their businesses.

Based on the research of economic experts in Ohio, this narrative is far less common than the public has been led to believe.

"The idea that most unemployed Ohio workers are sitting around and collecting unemployment when they could be going back to work — frankly, it's an insult to Ohio workers," said Zach Schiller, research director at Policy Matters Ohio. 

"Where is the great rhetoric from these business leaders who are always telling us about what a fantastic workforce we have? And then they turn around and tell us that, well, they're a bunch of lazy slobs because they're sitting at home collecting unemployment? I mean, which is it?"

Who's still on unemployment?

The Ohio worker collecting pandemic unemployment likely looks like Krista Spiker.

For the last year, Spiker, 56, has been shuttling from her Austintown home to various Cleveland Clinic specialists seeking answers regarding her multiple new medical conditions.

Spiker is considered a "COVID long-hauler" or a sufferer of "long COVID" — someone who experiences debilitating symptoms long after the infection has passed. She now struggles with chronic fatigue, inflammatory arthritis and trouble breathing. 

"My hands are really affected by it, and I am limited to what I can do," she said about her recent onset of arthritis. "There was such a terrible flare last summer that even to touch my hands was very painful."

Until April 2020, Spiker worked as the assistant director of the environmental services department at a Valley long-term care facility. Then she got COVID-19.

"I know I was exposed there. I'm quite sure of it," she said. "Because I was pretty much coming home and staying in quarantine otherwise."

Spiker's infection sent her to the emergency room after she collapsed in her home. 

But she never fully recovered. After exhausting her 12 weeks of leave granted by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, Spiker received a termination letter from her employer.

Nearly a year later, the mysterious effects of her COVID-19 infection remain. 

Staying afloat

DeWine announced Ohio will stop providing Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) on June 26 — 10 weeks before the federal program is set to end.

FPUC is the extra weekly $300 being paid to Americans on unemployment insurance; earlier in the pandemic, FPUC provided $600 each week. 

"The federal assistance, that extra $300 a week in federal pandemic unemployment compensation, is in some cases certainly discouraging people from going back at this point in time," DeWine said. 

The assistance was a "lifeline" at the beginning of the pandemic; now the benefits are "having a real impact on Ohio's ability to fully recover," DeWine said May 13. 

With just her basic unemployment insurance, Krista Spiker brings in less than half of what she earned working. Her husband works, but the couple relied on their combined incomes to keep afloat.  

The extra $300 weekly "makes things manageable," said Spiker. "You don't have to worry, you know. And I have medical bills."

She estimates she's racked up about $3,000 in medical bills since contracting COVID-19. 

FPUC, Ohio workers and the economy

At Policy Matters Ohio, Schiller has a problem with the way some state leaders characterize Ohio workers. 

Not only does he find their words insulting; he also argues that they're wrong. 

We're no longer in the deepest depths of the crisis, but claiming life has gone back to normal is "a cock-eyed misrepresentation of reality," Schiller said. 

According to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, between April 14 and May 10,

  • 11 percent of Ohioans reported they were behind on rent
  • 10 percent of Ohioans with children reported they couldn't put adequate food on the table for their kids
  • 24 percent of Ohioans reported they had difficulty covering usual household expenses 

For white-collar professionals, the pandemic may not have changed much, but life for many middle and low-income Ohioans is still far from "normal."

While the DeWine administration touts a recovering economy and available jobs, Ohio has nearly 300,000 fewer jobs than it did in February 2020, Policy Matters Ohio wrote in a press release. 

Moreover, data does not support the notion that Ohioans are staying home collecting unemployment when a job is available. 

In a report published in May 2021, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco concludes a slim percentage of people on employment would reject a job offer in favor of a supplemental $300 per week. 

"The value of a job, especially in a depressed market, significantly outweighs the value of the temporary additional [unemployment insurance] income," the report explains. 

Furthermore, according to Department of Labor data, only 20.7 percent of Ohioans on unemployment exhausted their benefits in the fourth quarter of 2020. That's less than half the national rate, 43.1 percent. 

While DeWine argues the extra unemployment cash harms the economy by keeping workers home, Schiller claims the opposite: the extra unemployment assistance actually helps reboot the economy. Cutting off the weekly $300 payment to more than 350,000 Ohioans 10 weeks before the benefits expire robs the state of at least $1 billion in consumer spending power, Schiller contends. 

"[DeWine] has taken a billion dollars of federal assistance and basically wiped it off the map," he said. "He's flushed it down the toilet. And so we have a billion dollars that would be coming into Ohio, that would be spent on services and products in Ohio by and large ... So we have hurt Ohio businesses by taking a billion dollars in consumer purchasing power.

Why aren't people returning to work?

In their characterization of Ohio workers, however, state leaders are hitting upon an important truth. 

Many Ohioans who previously worked in the service industry or in manufacturing are not returning to their old jobs.

As a result of the labor shortage, many employed Ohioans are overworked, and some businesses are at risk of shuttering. 

"[Employers] tell me they're having a very serious, serious time finding employees. Many employees who are with these companies are having to work very, very long hours. I've had employees tell us they don't want to work those long hours," DeWine said May 13. 

Local businesses owners are seeing this, too. 

While describing the reopening the Garden Cafe at Fellows Riverside Garden, owner Jack Kravitz explained how difficult it has been to staff the cafe. 

“Trying to get a crew together is very very difficult. You know, people aren’t trying to work. It's real. You put out a help wanted ad and you'll get 20 applications where people respond, and of those 20 people maybe three will come in for an interview and of those three maybe one will actually come back [to work]," he said

In the food service industry alone, there are 1.7 million fewer jobs filled than before the pandemic. 

But the reasoning offered by state and national leaders doesn't match the experience of many service industry employees. 

A November 2020 report from One Fair Wage, an organization devoted to ending sub-minimum wages in the U.S., found that more than 80 percent of service workers saw a decline in tips; about two-thirds report their tips decreased by at least 50 percent. 

More than 40 percent reported facing an increase in sexual harassment from customers during the pandemic, such as requests that female servers remove their masks so male customers could judge their looks.

One worker said a customer commented, "Pull that mask down so I can see if I want to take you home later."

With tips on the line — and fewer opportunities to earn them — some workers said they felt forced to risk personal safety in response to harassment rather than escalate a potentially hostile situation. As result, as the Washington Post reported, the pandemic was the final straw for many disgruntled restaurant workers; such issues prompted many to seek other opportunities. 

And then there are American mothers. 

"Things are not normal, and they're not normal in a whole bunch of different ways," Schiller said. "And one of those ways is that many people can't go back to work, because they don't have adequate childcare."

As of September 2020, the number of licensed child care providers in Ohio dropped more than 60 percent from pre-pandemic levels, according to Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services data

In the absence of child care and given the prevalence of remote schooling, caregiving was disproportionately shunted to working mothers — many of whom were unable to do both. 

According to the National Women's Law Center, more than 2.3 million women left the workplace since the start of the pandemic.

Long-hauling for the long-haul

Since it became clear some sufferers of COVID-19 would struggle with the disease's effects for months to come, COVID long-haulers who claim they contracted the disease at the workplace and cannot return to work have been seeking worker's compensation. 

Worker's compensation attorney and Mahoning County Court Judge Joe Schiavoni has been trying to make their case. 

But legally identifying the location of disease transmission is like suing a restaurant for damages when you get food poisoning the next day. It is really tough to prove. 

One client "worked in the office, and she said that five guys came down with COVID in the same week. Of course, it came from there. Common sense would tell you, but then I couldn't get a doctor to really say with a reasonable degree of medical certainty that he believed it was because of being in that office," Schiavoni said.

For someone like Krista Spiker, "The ultimate recourse for her might be, if she really doesn't get better and she really can't work and a doctor says that, she could go for Social Security Disability," Schiavoni said. 

But doing so would be a challenge, because claimants must argue permanency of injury, Schiavoni said. 

For other conditions, like a physical injury or a heart issue, getting medical testimony would be more straightforward. 

"With COVID, I think a lot of doctors would say, 'We don't know. We don't know if she's going to be disabled,'" Schiavoni said. 

Furthermore, some of the symptoms, like brain fog and fatigue, are invisible ailments that are difficult to support with evidence. 

"Plus there's this stigma that, like, they're full of BS," he said.

The optimal solution may be a legislative one, Schiavoni offered, like a state or national law for a "COVID specific disability, like a band-aid or a bridge disability, to see if [long-haulers] get better."

But, unfortunately, "that would never happen quickly," he said. 

Until then, COVID long-haulers who can't return to work are out of luck.

"For right now, they are, because they're looking around at all of the options, and all of the hallways are very narrow," Schiavoni said. 

Jess Hardin

About the Author: Jess Hardin

Jess Hardin is a reporter for Mahoning Matters. She grew up in Pittsburgh and last worked at The Vindicator. Jess graduated from Georgetown University.
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