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Helping Ohio’s Unemployed, One Person at a Time

In the past month, some 850,000 Ohioans have filed for unemployment as the coronavirus unleashes a health and economic crisis throughout the United States.

Andrew “Duff” Woodside and Tonya Reese, both unemployment compensation specialists for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) and members of OCSEA/AFSCME Local 11, are helping Ohioans survive the financial storm by working overtime to process jobless claims.

They have been on the front lines all along, even as they have been working from home.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve been working for unemployment for 16 years, not even the great recession of ‘08 was anything like this, even with all the extended benefits,” Woodside said, referring to the Great Recession.

While many Americans were working from home, Reese went into her physical place of work for several weeks to support and maintain the critical technology that allows ODJFS to process unemployment applications. As the crisis mounted, Reese transitioned to splitting her days troubleshooting problems for customer care specialists and helping Ohioans apply for benefits.

“This has been a very emotional time,” said Reese, a member of Chapter 2599. “These are people’s paychecks we’re talking about here. Their livelihoods. Customers are in crisis. They are facing the unknown. They are frustrated, they are sad. But everything we’ve ever trained for has led us to this. We’re here to help. This is our mission at hand.”

Woodside, a steward for Chapter 5700 and executive board member of the statewide ODJFS Assembly, normally investigates unemployment fraud. But he has also stepped up to help process the overwhelming volume of applications.

Reese and Woodside are pulling 12-hour shifts working from home, and putting in extra time on Saturdays and Sundays. Woodside reported working his 23rd consecutive day of work and putting in 64-hour weeks. 

Reese said, “It’s crazy right now. So many folks need help, but we are working hard to get each and every person their money as fast as possible.”

Despite the long days, the isolation, and difficulties of working from home, Reese said the team is keeping its spirits high with compassion, duty, and a sense of humor.

“It’s the team’s morale that’s getting us through this. Even working from home we stay in touch, and we know that in spite of everything, we just have to stick together. We’re keeping a sense of humor and helping each other out. We can’t fix everything, but we can get through this by focusing on one call or email at a time,” she said.

Woodside recalled the parable of the school of starfish that washed ashore in the roasting sun.

“I know when I get my hands on one, I can get them back in the sea. When I get tired after working 11 hours, I feel like ‘Well, I got one more in me, let me get one more,’ and that helps me from getting overwhelmed,” he said. “I can’t control 850,000 applicants; I can’t even really conceive of that number [of applicants]. But I can help this one person.”

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