A white stone building, labeled the John Wilson building.
The D.C. Council normally meets in the Wilson building. Photo courtesy of Adam Fagen / Flickr.

Some D.C. workers who have been applying for unemployment benefits since March have still not received payment from the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DOES). 

Workers who testified at an Oct. 26 D.C. Council public round table held by the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development expressed concerns that benefits took several months to access, if they could be accessed at all, and that repeated attempts to reach out to DOES received no response. The panel, hosted by At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, chair of the committee, also discussed extending benefits, back-pay, and the District’s shared work program. 

According to Silverman, more than 150,000 workers in the District have filed with DOES for unemployment benefits, translating to one in every five or six workers in the District. These workers have often spent months filing claims with DOES, waiting up to 12 hours on the phone to speak to someone from the agency. Waves of applications during the pandemic have led to the website to crash, driving works to call DOES and wait hours to speak to someone. Though the Council has taken action to extend unemployment benefits for seven weeks both for those on traditional unemployment and pandemic unemployment assistance (PUA), workers are not notified they are eligible for these extensions, and Silverman, as well as many workers who testified, remained skeptical about DOES’s ability to implement those extensions or provide benefits to those with outstanding claims. 

“We need to do everything that we can to help these workers and their family members stay stable at this time,” Silverman said at the start of the hearing. “I am increasingly concerned that the struggles of our workers who have lost jobs and income in our city, who are predominantly Black and Latino, are just not being prioritized by people in power.”

Colleen Paul is an opera singer and substitute teacher who was on unemployment benefits before the pandemic. Her benefits suddenly stopped coming the same week the city began to close down, which she later learned was because her 26 weeks of initial benefits had expired.  She was eligible for an extension, but she never received any notifications from DOES about the extension or information on how to apply. Unlike some other jurisdictions, D.C. does not automatically extend unemployment benefits when applicants are eligible. 

Paul started calling DOES in March and did so through July. She finally got some information when she contacted her caseworker directly, but still has yet to receive benefits. On Oct. 14, she was told she would receive a full back payment for wages lost, but then received an email saying she was being audited for claims she does not believe she filed and money she has never received. 

“It’s been close to seven months for me being in this situation,” Paul said at the hearing.“I’ve filed claims forms five times now, I’ve done everything required of me by the DOES and I’m constantly met with roadblocks.” 

Paul said she had not received a letter providing an opportunity to appeal that applicants usually receive when they are denied. 

“I’m wondering, what is happening right now? I’m extremely frustrated,” she said. 

Several other workers shared stories similar to Paul’s — an inability to get in touch with DOES, long wait times for benefits, and confusion about the process that DOES did not address. 

Carren Kaston, a self-employed writer and editor, applied for unemployment benefits in the last week of March and did not get benefits until the last week of July. When she did, she said the benefits were undercalculated. A few weeks later, all the benefits stopped. 

“I’m told I committed tax fraud because I accurately reported as instructed on the weekly benefits claims form a small amount of self-employment income during a couple of the weeks,” Kaston said. She has since been switched off PUA, intended for gig workers, to regular unemployment insurance (UI) because of a complication with her income that qualified her for UI. If workers qualify for UI at all because they filed a W-2 form, that form of assistance takes precedence, even if it provides them lower benefits. 

Meanwhile, Kaston’s payments have stopped again. 

“I continue to file a claim every week,” she said. “Nothing is happening.” 

This slowdown of benefits has had a real impact on the lives of those waiting for unemployment benefits. Some workers reported fears they would be evicted following the pandemic due to an inability to pay rent, while others are struggling to provide basic necessities for themselves and their families, leading to mental health crises. 

These worries, Trupti Patel, the ANC commissioner for 2A03 testified, are amplified when DOES fails to respond effectively to unemployment claims. Patel is a tipped worker who lost her job during the pandemic, and spent seven hours on the phone with DOES trying to secure benefits. 

“The trauma of having lost our livelihood was amplified by the failure of the Department of Employment Services unemployment insurance portal and horrible customer service,” Patel said. 

These stories point to the main concern raised in these hearings, which is that a lack of staffing and adequate resources, combined with a failure to communicate on the part of DOES have led to hundreds of District workers not receiving the aid they are eligible for and have spent hours pursuing. 

Following the initial hearing about these concerns on Sept. 16, Silverman, along with four other members of the Council, sent a letter to DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes requesting more information on how the department could automate the extension of benefits, how long it would take the agency to handle back pay claims and whether they needed additional staff to do so in a timely manner, and how many workers had requested and received back pay. The letter also requested additional information on the shared work program, staffing at DOES, and federal funding. DOES did not provide a response by Oct. 23, the date requested in the letter. 

DOES was invited to testify at the hearing but did not attend. “Given the focus on problem-solving for both our workers and our employers, I have to tell you that I am disappointed that the Department of Employment Services has decided not to testify at this hearing,” Silverman said of their absence. DOES did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

In addition to PUA, UI, and their respective extensions, the hearing also covered the shared work program, an initiative offered by the District that allows employers to keep some employees on the payroll with reduced hours without jeopardizing their ability to get unemployment for wages lost. Businesses can apply with the District to participate in the program, and once approved can bring workers back without ending their eligibility for benefits. 

Silverman touted the potential of the program at the start of the hearing. 

“It helps our businesses stay in business, it helps our workers continue to put money in their pockets, and it should be a great way of helping our economy,” she said. 

However, the program, which Silverman said has seen minimal enrollment, was widely criticized by participants who testified during the hearing. Jojo Morinvil, an organizer with ONE D.C., said her attempts to get information on who the coordinator of the program was, what businesses and industries were approved, and how many people were using the program were all futile. 

Patrick Flynn, who runs Patrick’s Pet Care, enrolled his business in the program and cut back his employee’s hours with the understanding they would receive benefits. The first week, he said some employees received benefits but others did not. He attempted to reach out to the contact information provided for the shared work program and received no response for several days. Flynn then called the general switchboard at DOES, which he said did not include an option for shared work. Getting increasingly desperate, he googled the Bureau of Economic Stability, which the program supposedly operates under, but nothing came up. (There does not appear to be an easily accessible web page for the bureau if it exists). 

“If you just start pressing buttons to talk to someone at DOES, no one has ever heard of the Department of Economic Stability and shared work,” Flynn said. 

When he finally did get in touch with someone, he learned there had been miscommunication from the department about how employees on shared work should file for unemployment and how many employees Flynn had on the program. This had slowed down payment, and, according to DOES, led to an overpayment that employees would have to repay. When Flynn called the department to try to sort out the situation of individual employees, he was told only the employees could access their records. When the employees called, they were told only Flynn could. 

Addy Baird, a reporter at Buzzfeed in D.C. and a member of the Buzzfeed news union, reported similar frustration and said several employees were still missing hundreds of dollars in benefits from the shared work program. According to Baird, the shared work programs in New York and California, where Buzzfeed also has employees, worked fine, but in D.C. DOES did not uphold their side of the bargain. In a phone call with Morris-Hughes to try to resolve the situation, Baird said she cast doubt on whether they would receive the back pay and then abruptly left the call without explanation. 

“Trying to communicate with anyone at the agency has been like screaming into a black hole,” Baird said. Both Baird and Flynn pointed out they were college-educated and had a relatively large amount of time trying to figure out how to make the program work—if it wasn’t working for them, they weren’t confident it was working for anybody.  

The hearing was intended to find solutions to the problems mentioned. While Silverman and attendees floated some ideas, including automating the extension system, increasing the number of employees who can respond to claims at DOES, and implementing a standardized portal for the shared work portal, the implementation of any are unlikely without the participation of DOES.