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Ohio workers applying for unemployment benefits face delays, 'nightmare’ bureaucracy: Restaurant industry in crisis

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 4/13/2020 By Anne Nickoloff, cleveland.com

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Applications for unemployment benefits continue to roll in due to coronavirus-related shutdowns and layoffs, breaking records every week in Ohio as the COVID-19 crisis affects more and more jobs across the state.

As of Friday, more than 696,000 people had applied for unemployment compensation in the state of Ohio in the three weeks since state officials ordered businesses to close to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Laid-off restaurant workers make up a big chunk of that number. The dining rooms and bars of Ohio’s restaurants have been closed since mid-March, throwing thousands out of work.

For many people seeking unemployment checks, the process has been frustrating. Many have had to deal with misunderstandings with the unemployment office, long waits on the phone and, once they are finally approved, inconsistent or low payouts.

Below are three Northeast Ohio service industry workers’ stories about job layoffs, unemployment applications, and other ways coronavirus has affected their daily life.

Conor Byers, bartender at Craft Collective at the Van Aken district

Conor Byers spent weeks filing for unemployment after he was laid off from his job as a bartender at Craft Collective in March. Since then, he said he’s received inconsistent payments.

“Some weeks I get paid, and others I don’t,” Byers said. “We are creeping up on a month of this lockdown. The monotony can be almost maddening, and the stress of not knowing how I will pay for things when the money runs out is always present.”

So far, Byers said he’s received two payments of $350, making $700 total in the past month -- normally the amount of money he’d earn in a good week as a bartender, he said.

Byers says he has had trouble paying bills, rent, groceries and other expenses -- including a $13,500 medical debt. He and his roommates, who are also service-industry workers, carefully plan trips to the grocery store and cook at home to save money.

That home cooking, Byers said, has been a helpful distraction.

“We are all service-industry employees with culinary backgrounds so we are still eating fairly well,” he said. “With nothing but time on our hands my other laid-off roommate and I have been treating cooking and working-out as our ‘jobs,’ which definitely helps distract us from how desperate things are getting. “

The hardest part for Byers has been disconnecting from his family and friends, and he said the coronavirus crisis has also affected his mental health.

“Depression and anxiety about the uncertainty of what life will be like after this, and all the people I miss, literally keeps me up at night,” Byers said. “Not going out. Not seeing friendly faces. The juxtaposition of boredom and panic is a daily struggle.”

Samantha Stockhausen, bartender at Two Bucks

For some service-industry workers, layoffs affect more than their pocket book. For Samantha Stockhausen, a bartender at Two Bucks in Middleburg Heights, it’s potentially pushing off marriage.

"I’m getting married on June 13 this year, hopefully,” Stockhausen said. “With everything going on, we have no idea if the wedding will even be able to be performed. Honestly, if my fianc 1/4 u00e9 didn’t have such a good job, I would be completely screwed right now as a single mom, and would probably have to move back in with my parents.”

Stockhausen and her fiance, Brandon Shultz, both have four children to entertain while schools have been closed in the state of Ohio.

“We used to spend our days outside or at the zoo, or the Science Center; now we can’t,” Stockhausen said.

The couple is dependent on Shultz’s income, and Stockhausen said that they have been lucky to not have to dip into savings yet. Stockhausen said her unemployment request has not been processed yet.

“I’m still pending for unemployment, and have been for the past three weeks,” Stockhausen said. “I haven’t been able to get through to the unemployment line, and I’ve essentially given up calling.”

Two Bucks may open up for takeout with a limited menu in May, offering laid-off workers the opportunity to make some extra money, Stockhausen said. Before it closed, Two Bucks also gave employees perishable food, which Stockhausen said helped make ends meet for her family.

Ericka Danielle Mandarano, busser at First Watch

Misunderstandings and endless phone calls plagued Ericka Danielle Mandarano’s unemployment experience, after being temporarily laid off from her job as a busser at First Watch.

A misunderstanding listed Mandarano as an out-of-state worker, since the First Watch chain is based in Florida, she said. Mandarano said she has worked at a Northeast Ohio location for eight years.

Recently, she was approved for unemployment, but only after having to call the state’s unemployment office many times to clear up issues, she said.

“As far as unemployment goes, it’s kind of a nightmare trying to get a hold of somebody sometimes; you even have to use two cell phones. You’ll eventually get somebody on the line, and they just hang up on you after you’ve been on the phone for over an hour,” she said. “I was able to get through; it took me from 7 a.m. untll 12:30 p.m.”

Mandarano is unable to find new work right now, out of fear of contracting the coronavirus and passing it along to immunocompromised family members, she said.

“My mom has no immune system; she has COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)," Mandarano said. “My mom’s primary physician advised me not to look for a job because that would basically be like giving my mom a death sentence.”

In the meantime, Mandarano is scraping by, with the help of unemployment. She’s worried about making her car payments and other bills, and even though she said that she’s lived paycheck-to-paycheck her whole life, the coronavirus has presented a new challenge.

Read more stories in this series:

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