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We Thought We Had Resolved Electronic Access to Unemployment Compensation, But…

Last July we told you about House Bill 2 – the bill that as originally proposed would have required every unemployed Ohio worker seeking unemployment compensation benefits to electronically “register” (prepare and post a complete job resume) on the new OhioMeansJobs before he or she could receive any unemployment benefits. Check out our July 25, 2013 posting “Advocates Improve Unemployment Compensation Bill for Ohio Workers” for the details on HB 2.
To sum up, as a result of discussions among the Governor’s Office, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS), and worker advocates (including the Ohio Poverty Law Center), HB 2 was substantially amended before being passed by the General Assembly and signed by the Governor. For example, the requirement, that unemployment compensation applicants electronically register on the OhioMeansJobs website as a precondition to receiving any unemployment benefits, was dropped. In addition, ODJFS provided assurances that unemployed workers could initially apply for benefits and register by phone and could also choose to receive information about job matches by phone. This new law just took effect earlier this month – on April 11, 2014. It will take at least several months to evaluate the possible impact – both good and bad – of the changes triggered by the implementation of HB 2.
The debate and negotiations over HB 2 should have lain to rest mandatory electronic filing requirements for unemployment compensation. However, in March of this year, the Kasich administration introduced the budget corrections bill – the so-called Mid-Biennium Review (MBR). Buried in that 2500-page bill was a surprising provision that would require everyone – with certain narrow exceptions – to electronically file their initial applications for unemployment compensation benefits and all subsequent continuing claims. This troubling provision became part of the appropriations bill, House Bill 483 (HB 483). HB 483 was on a fast track for passage by the House Finance Appropriations Committee (and the full General Assembly).
Once again, the Ohio Poverty Law Center (OPLC), Policy Matters Ohio, Disability Rights Ohio, Protecting Ohio Employees, and other worker advocates opposed this electronic filing mandate and requested its removal from HB 483. Once again, we were successful. The controversial language was taken out of HB 483.
Unfortunately, this issue is like a bad guest that will not leave the party. Similar language may be incorporated into a separate, stand-alone bill to be introduced in the General Assembly in the near future. So the battle is not over, but removing the language from the budget bill is a significant victory for unemployed Ohio workers because the legislature is likely to proceed with greater deliberation and care in considering a separate bill during the regular legislative process – instead of the fast-track, high-pressure budget appropriations process.

The legislature should take a deliberate approach. The recent disastrous experience of Florida in implementing a similar law, resulting in tens of thousands of workers losing their unemployment benefits and a finding by the U.S. Department of Labor that Florida’s unemployment compensation system violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and other major federal civil rights laws, is a cautionary tale. Data from Connect Ohio shows there is still a significant digital divide in Ohio. For example, only 72% of Ohio homes subscribe to in-home broadband access. The adoption rate is even lower in Appalachian Ohio and among low-income households, persons without a college education, older Ohioans, and adults with disabilities. Moreover, at least one in eight Ohioans who did not subscribe to broadband service do not do so because of their lack of computer skills, and more than 2.7 million working-age Ohioans have difficulty completing many computer-related tasks required by today’s employers. There are also some communities – and in particular in southeastern Ohio – where residents do not even have access to broadband service.
Obviously, and despite all the contrary information, an all-electronic system for handling unemployment compensation has the attention of both the Ohio legislature and the Governor. OPLC and its partners plan to stay on top of any future legislative efforts to require electronic filing of all unemployment compensation applications and continuing claims, and potentially even more intrusive requirements such as completing extensive online questionnaires or tests without a telephone alternative or being able to obtain in-person assistance at local, OhioMeansJobs sites. But every Ohio worker has a stake in the outcome of continuing legislative efforts to sacrifice worker access to critical benefits in the name of efficiency and economy. In weighing the options, access to benefits should always win out.

written by Mike Smalz

 

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Categories: Employment, Law Journal, Legislative Advocacy, Unemployment Compensation

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