Ohio’s layoff aversion program grows ‘exponentially’ in pandemic

An Ohio program that has allowed companies to retain employees during the coronavirus pandemic has seen the number of participating businesses grow more than five times since March.

SharedWork Ohio —started more than five years ago — is the state’s layoff aversion program. It allows workers to remain employed and employers to retain trained staff during times of “reduced business activity.”

For the first five years the program was operational, there were 160 employers who participated. Since March, there have been 923 employers.

On July 2, Gov.Mike DeWine signed an executive order enabling the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services to draw down federal funding authorized under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act for the purpose of paying SharedWork Ohio compensation through the end of this year. This means Ohio employers will not be charged for layoff aversion benefits paid to employees.

Employers who have reduced work needs can participate in the program for up to a year to retain employees who otherwise would be laid off while also cutting costs. Participating businesses reduce workers’ hours between 10% to 50%, but continue paying wages for the hours worked and continue providing benefits like health insurance and retirement, if they provide them.

As a part of the program, those employees receive SharedWork compensation, which is a prorated weekly unemployment benefit equal to the percentage of hours reduced.

Juliane Barone, legal chief of Ohio Unemployment Insurance Operations and one of the founders of the SharedWork Ohio program, said that while the additional $600 Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) benefit is federally available, participants in the program can also receive that each week. The last payable week for PUC benefits is this week in Ohio, unless Congress renews the measure.

If the measure if not renewed, the SharedWork Ohio program will continue to help employers avoid laying off employees, Barone said.

Barone said that more than 45,000 employees and 923 employers across the state have benefited from this “vital tool” since March. There are currently 72 pending applications for SharedWork Ohio and 994 pending participants, Barone said.

“We can’t get to enough employers, it is growing daily,” Barone said. “That’s a great thing because it’s helping people stay employed.”

Tobii Dynavox, a company that creates assistive technology for communication, has also used the SharedWork Ohio program. The company is based in Pittsburgh, but has remote employees in Ohio.

“Not every state has a program like this, that is so user-friendly for the employer or flexible. Ohio is ahead of the game,” said Ashley Weiss, talent acquisition specialist for the company. “We would love to see this program become the national standard.”

Tobii Dynavox’s product is used by a lot of non-verbal people, so the company often sells in hospitals. When the pandemic hit, the company needed to reduce hours 20% because they couldn’t safely go into hospitals.

“Sales slowed down because of the coronavirus and it was nice to reduce hours and not layoff our employees,” Weiss said. “It’s great to have the option so they can still have benefits and support their families.”

The company plans to return to full hours Aug. 14.

From the SharedWork full automation launch back in 2015, through February 2020, 11,500 employees participated in the program. Barone said the growth was “incredible” and meant fewer Ohioans were being laid off than without the program.

Employers can also use the SharedWork program to bring back employees who have been laid off.

Ohio’s unemployment rate jumped from 5.8% in March to nearly 18% the following month. The state’s unemployment rate in June was 10.9%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“If I’m an employer, I know that I’m benefiting my employees by participating in this program, as opposed to just partial unemployment,” Barone said.

During the coronavirus pandemic, employees have been getting a percentage of what they’re entitled to through normal unemployment, plus the $600 PUC benefit. If an employee’s hours are cut in half, they get 50% of the benefits they’re entitled to.

This prevents employers from losing workers they will need in the future, when business picks up.

Barone said before the pandemic, the majority of businesses using the SharedWork program were manufacturers. Now, many businesses, from medical professionals to libraries, are using the program.

Because of the PUC benefit, Barone said the vast majority of employees in the SharedWork Ohio program are being “made whole.”

“For the majority, that was a benefit that helped make people whole during this crisis,” Barone said.

When the PUC ends, people participating in SharedWork Ohio will continue to receive pay. The SharedWork Ohio program was never designed to “make people whole,” Barone said, but get them up to about 75% of where they were when working full-time.

“In the pandemic the SharedWork program looks a lot different, I think it’s going to be hard for people to transition off of that $600,” Barone said.

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