At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman (I) spends her afternoons on the Seventh Floor of One Judiciary Square. There she sits with 100 other District employees, some employed by DC Department of Employment Services (DOES), many pulled from a range of other District agencies, to answer the deluge of calls related to Unemployment Insurance (UI) claims.
Silverman, who is Chair of the DC Council Labor Committee, works in the auxiliary call center set up in the office of the attorney general, making her way through the hundreds of pleas her office receives from constituents made desperate by a bottleneck in the UI application process.
“We are seeing just depression level numbers of workers filing for unemployment,” she said. “The system wasn’t built for this kind of capacity.”
A look at the District’s UI system reveals a system struggling to keep up with an unprecedented number of requests from applicants. Many have waited weeks for relief to come.
The Unemployment Tsunami
With 65,000 jobs lost in DC since March 13, many District residents find themselves applying for assistance for the first time, a situation Silverman said can be scary, confusing and time-consuming. It is an application “tsunami.”
Between March 13 and May 21, DOES received 100,499 unemployment claims, almost four times as many received in 2019, when DC saw about 27,000 claims. Restaurant dining rooms were closed March 24. Unemployment rose to 11.1 percent from 6 percent in March.
More than 40 percent of applicants for District UI are waiting for money. Of the more than 100,000 claims received by DOES as of May 21, only 59,914 people received a check, leaving more than 40,000 people waiting for funds. About 18,000 of those are in the appeals process, said DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes at a May 22nd press conference. Another 17,000 were received in the 21 days previous, within the time DOES tries to process claims.
One in seven District workers are employed in the hospitality industry, which has been decimated by the outbreak, especially by the March 24 closure of restaurant dining rooms. Trupti Patel is a bartender who worked her last shift on March 12.
She is also the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for 2A03 and an activist with the Restaurant Opportunity Centers (ROC), an organization that works to improve working conditions and wages for restaurant employees and is now acting as an unofficial unemployment consultant to restaurant workers.
Patel filed for UI online a few days after she was laid off and got a notice from the system to call DOES. She spent six and a half hours on hold to resolve a small clerical error. She received a check in mid-April, four weeks after she applied. She was lucky, she says, because she had savings.
“Director Morris-Hughes keeps saying we need to be patient with this, but people are starving,” Patel said. “There are people that are still waiting for their benefits, people who still haven’t gotten paid in eight weeks.”
Patel said the pay of most hospitality workers had already been decimated in the weeks before closure. In her last three shifts, she said, she earned what she usually brought home after only one. Most restaurant workers, having just paid rent and bills prior to the serious decrease in pay, were broke at that point.
She said the system has ‘traumatized and dehumanized’ applicants, many of whom were on hold for hours with DOES before the system abruptly hung up. Others waited hours only to be told to call back when they had correct documentation. Some found out they had been listed as contractors by their employers when they tried to file, making them ineligible for regular benefits.
The unemployment application tsunami overwhelming DOES is further complicated by a recent federally-driven expansion of unemployment benefits.
There is a lot of confusion around UI. UI benefits are paid by the jurisdiction where the applicant works; only about half of District jobs are held by District residents, Silverman said. The program is funded by a tax on wages paid by both the employer and employee. In ordinary times, the self-employed do not qualify for benefits. With the onset of COVID, the system has been greatly expanded to include more workers, beginning in March when Congress passed the CARES Act.
That bill created three new unemployment programs. These include the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which covers many of those previously ineligible workers, such as contractors and part time and gig economy workers. The Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) adds 13 additional weeks of compensation for those who exhausted their regular benefits for the year. Finally, until July 29, those eligible for UI benefits also receive the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), an extra $600 a week.
DC Council passed emergency legislation March 17 and April 7 that expanded eligibility, eliminating the one-week waiting period and a work search requirement. More than $311 million has been paid in District benefits since March 13.
DOES Director Morris-Hughes said some waiting applicants have very complex situations such as earning wages in another state or holding full-time jobs, in addition to the part-time self-employed pay for which they seek benefits. Other individuals are ineligible because their reported wages are insufficient for a claim.
“We know that there are individuals that have not been paid,” Morris-Hughes said, “but we have to review literally every single claim that’s processed, and it just takes some time.” About 65 percent of completed applications were processed within 21 days, she added.
The UI Obstacle Course
UI applicants face a number of obstacles in their quest for benefits. First, the online unemployment insurance portal is at least 15 years old. According to Silverman, it is written in computer code based on an ancient programming language that predates her birth. After council waived the job search requirement, DOES took two weeks to remove the online application question querying applicants about the details of their job search. The system is too old to be accessed via mobile, and applicants were told to apply from a laptop or desktop using Windows Explorer, an obsolete system.
The District has had funding to modernize the system since 2012, a project that DOES says is currently underway. Silverman said that the Council Labor Committee has been asking about modernization since well before the pandemic, receiving only “garbled answers.”
“Certainly, we could have done better if we had modernized the system so that people could file with their cell phone. We could have had unemployment call takers working remotely, for example, and had a smoother transition,” Silverman said.
Aside from the issues of dated technology, many lower income applicants must either cross the digital divide to apply online or use a phone. The closure of DOES offices, recreation centers, senior centers, schools and public libraries, closed for the public health emergency, significantly decreased Internet access in Wards 7 and 8, where broadband has a household penetration rate of under 65 percent. In the absence of a smart phone app or public online infrastructure, many have been forced to apply over the phone. Callers faced wait times as long as six hours.
DOES has since asked employees from other District agencies to help, as well as contracting two call centers and emergency staff, including adjudicators. A spokesperson said the wait time now averages less than an hour for initial claims.
Still, the process is slow and frustrating. “I still hear from people that have been waiting two or three hours, and we’ve been hearing that people get to a certain point and get kicked out of the system,” Silverman said. “They just don’t know what’s going on.”
Failing the Most Vulnerable
But unemployment is outright failing the most vulnerable members of the hospitality workforce, Patel said. Undocumented workers are locked out of relief, disqualified for unemployment as well as food stamps.
“I spend 30 to 40 hours a week fielding phone calls about how to get basic necessities to members of our industry who are extremely food insecure and have no way to take care of very young children, and babies,” she said.
Unlike neighboring Montgomery County, MD, which established a $5 million grant program for residents restricted from UI benefits, no program is offered by the District to support the up to 30,000 undocumented workers who live and work here. Legislative language that would have authorized cash assistance to residents unqualified for relief was cut from the council’s April 7 emergency bill.
That provision offered two options, either to create a system parallel to UI or a grant program like Maryland’s. And while Events DC announced in April that it would set aside $5 million for undocumented workers, as of May 24 the sports and entertainment agency has not announced how or when that money will be distributed.
For Silverman, the COVID crisis highlights why the District needs to invest in our safety net programs. After years of trying to get the system updated, she says that now that more people have interacted with it and noticed its shortcomings, she needs them to continue to apply pressure to make the system better.
“I hope that COVID shows the importance of the unemployment insurance system,” Silverman said, “the importance of keeping it modern and maintaining it properly and making the investment that we need so that it works when necessary and at the critical times like these.”
Do you have a confusing UI situation? You can reach Councilmember Elissa Silverman via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach her office at 202-724-7772