City Paper is not for tourists
Anxiety over unemployment benefits consumes bartender Jeremy Wetmore. “It’s literally on my mind constantly,” he says. “When’s the money going to come in? Sleep is a luxury that I can’t even have at this point because stress is mounting. Bills are coming in. There’s been no relief at this point. It’s frustrating.”
Wetmore is one of about 68,000 people who have applied for unemployment benefits with the Department of Employment Services (DOES) since COVID-19 prompted mass layoffs in mid-March. The hospitality industry is among the hardest hit sectors.
Even though DOES has been able to make 78,263 payments to 29,602 people totaling $28,754,976 since March 13, some service industry workers haven’t gotten their benefits or are finally receiving their first disbursements after a month of struggling with the system. They report spending up to seven hours a day on hold with the agency only to be disconnected.
To stretch their budgets, some workers are also applying for other forms of aid with limited success. City Paper checked in with a handful of workers to find out how they’re faring exactly one month since Mayor Muriel Bowser ended on-premise consumption at restaurants and bars.
Wetmore was working atCityBarin Southwest D.C. when he got laid off on March 16 and applied for unemployment within an hour. He’s attempted to reapply for benefits every week and says he has spent well over 20 hours on hold trying to get in contact with DOES. The first time he heard from the office was earlier this week when they reached out requesting payment history.
He thinks people who applied early on in the crisis have fared the worst. “A lot of people I know who applied first haven’t gotten paid,” he says. “They got stuck in a holding pattern. Most of my friends haven’t gotten their money. It’s hard to watch all of us go through this.”
Wetmore applied before DOES removed the troublesome work-search requirement from the application process. It tripped up workers who were unsure whether to lie and say they were applying for jobs or truthfully respond that they weren’t currently looking for work. Most restaurants and bars aren’t hiring and workers hope their former employers will hire them back when restaurants and bars can fully reopen. Wetmore answered “no.”
While he waits, Wetmore counts on restaurants that have mobilized to feed hospitality industry workers such as Hook Halland Chef Edward Lee’s Lee Initiative at Succotash. “My savings are dwindling—the very small amount I have is at a scary level at this point,” he says. “I’m completely dependent on the system coming back with the unemployment money.”
On March 25, Kat Dean was laid off from The Tabard Innwhere she worked as the beverage director. She applied for unemployment the next day, but hasn’t been able to make it through the initial screening process.
When she tries to apply, she gets this message: “Your information has been received. Due to the extremely high volume of claims currently being filed, we ask that you resubmit your request on the next business day after 1 p.m.”
Dean shared a screenshot of the message with City Paper. DOES hasn’t responded to requests for comment about the message and whether it means the application process has slowed or stalled. At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who chairs the Labor and Workforce Committee and is training to be an unemployment call-taker, says DOES is still taking new claims.
Silverman also says the realistic wait time for benefits to come through is 21 days, given the volume of new claims. In her training, she learned the agency is receiving up to 3,000 calls per day. Once benefits go through, applicants will be back-paid to the date they first filed a claim. Silverman says her office confirmed that DOES is processing claims chronologically, though some cases are considered more complex and require more time.
“I feel bad for the people working at the unemployment office right now,” Dean says. “I know that this is a very unprecedented and overwhelming time.” Her frustration stems from the fact that she knows there were “opportunities ahead of the pandemic to fix an archaic system.” City Paperpreviously reported that a modernization of the city’s unemployment website was planned for more than a decade.
Financially, Dean is doing OK. “Thankfully this was the year I decided to put a lot of money away to travel so I have a little nest right now that I’m fine with,” she says. “I have savings that are going to get me through a couple of months.” Her landlord, cell phone provider, and credit card companies have all been willing to work with her on deferring payments.
Some workers have started to see payments trickle in, including Lauren Paylor. She had just started a job at Silver Lyan before the bar closed and laid her off on March 15. She applied for unemployment that day and the first disbursement hit her bank account on April 14.
When she first filed her claim she repeatedly received an error message that there was an issue with her application. “That was the start of me calling and being put on hold for hours being really confused,” she says.
Paylor turned to her hospitality industry peers in an industry Facebook group. She learned she could reach DOES more efficiently through Facebook Messenger. Another restaurant worker, Matthew Wilcoxfrom Mintwood Place, also had luck reaching the agency on social media and just received his first unemployment benefits after first applying on March 15.
Paylor says she was compensated for all of the weeks she was eligible for and adds that on April 16, she received her federal government stimulus check for $1,200 via direct deposit. Even with $444 per week in unemployment benefits and the one-time stimulus check, Paylor says she can only afford to pay for groceries. It could be another week before those who are eligible for unemployment benefits in D.C. also receive the $600 weekly unemployment disbursements included in the CARES Act.
Nikki, a laid off bartender who has already started to receive unemployment benefits after applying on March 15, joined the DC Tenants Union and is trying to organize neighbors in her apartment building. They hope to convince their landlord to cancel their rent payments until the public health emergency is over.
“I don’t think rent should be happening,” she says. “We’re trying to get D.C. to pass legislation that says all rent is canceled from the date the public emergency started to one month after it ends.”
Nikki, who asked for her last name to be omitted, was working as a bartender and closing manager at Union Pub before the pandemic reached D.C. She’s also applied for financial support from the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund organized by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation.
The program launched on April 2 and counts celebrity chef Guy Fieri as a spokesperson. Applicants who sought the $500 grants reported the website was so overwhelmed with traffic it crashed. On April 10, REFF announced on its website that it is no longer accepting applications. 60,000 people applied.
Nikki also applied for the United States Bartending Guild’s Bartender Emergency Assistance Program and has yet to hear back. The guild’s foundational arm received 250,000 applications, according to an email City Paper obtained. A representative for the USBG National Charity Foundation says they’re still accepting applications and evaluating them on a needs-based scale, but would not disclose how many grants have been awarded.
While Nikki is grateful her unemployment benefits have started, the process had hiccups. She signed up for direct deposit but DOES sent her a ReliaCard—a reloadable prepaid debit card issued by U.S. Bank. She received money for the first time on April 2 and by April 8 she received payments backdated to March 21. She had questions about her ReliaCard, but couldn’t get in touch with U.S. Bank.
Others report having trouble with ReliaCard, including Ellen McDonaldwho manages Macon Bistro in Chevy Chase with her husband. She applied for unemployment on March 17 and selected the debit card option. The unemployment website says it has disbursed $1,200 in benefits, but McDonald has yet to receive a card in the mail. Knowing the money is there but inaccessible it is exasperating.
First, McDonald called U.S. Bank. “The woman I talked to said they just lend their name to the card and have nothing to do with it,” she explains. “There’s no fiduciary who has control over this money.” She says DOES told her to call ReliaCard. She tried, and spent close to 30 hours on hold, never getting through. DOES did not respond to City Paper’s request for comment about ReliaCard. McDonald switched her request to direct deposit, hoping she’ll see money land in her bank account in the coming days.
McDonald says compared to some of Macon Bistro’s other employees, she and her husband are in a position to withstand the economic blows attached to this crisis. “It’s horrible for them,” she says, thinking of her colleagues. “They don’t know if they can afford to buy diapers or milk. My bartender has five kids and hasn’t seen a cent yet.”
ICYMI: We also asked owners about what support they’ve received one month since the city shut down restaurants to on-premise consumption.
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