Update 3/25: Councilmember Elissa Silverman’s office, in conversation with the Department of Employment Services, says if individuals received the message that their claim isn’t payable (because of the work-search requirement glitch), they do not need to reapply once the website has been updated. “Claimants should disregard the delay message, as no claims will be delayed or denied based on work search requirements,” Silverman’s office tells City Paper.

When Mayor Muriel Bowser closed restaurants and bars to on-premise dining, it triggered massive layoffs in the hospitality industry. With April rent looming and groceries to buy, many of those workers applied for unemployment benefits through the Department of Employment Services.

What they encountered was chaos and confusion—from technology glitches and long hold times to being notified that their claims weren’t payable for reasons outside of their control. This is to be expected, as the department says it has received almost 20,000 applications over the past 10 days.

“To summarize, they were quick to hurt us and they’re taking forever to help us,” says Nick Hodgson, who was laid off from his hospitality industry job. While he waits to be approved, he’s sussing out what sacrifices he’ll have to make living on a maximum payment of $444. “It’s better than nothing, but obviously it’s probably half of what I’ve been making per week.” 

While laid off restaurant and bar workers report getting through the initial application process after a couple of tries, they have run into trouble when they go to claim their first week of benefits. A message appears on their screens, which says: “Your claim is not payable. An issue exists on your claim. We will contact you within the 21 days if further information is needed.” 

Twenty-one days, to some, feels like a financial death sentence. Leah Simone, a laid off hospitality industry worker, is a single mom who typically works three jobs and goes to school. “I was already in trouble,” she says. “The worst part is going to be the catching up. That’s going to take most of the rest of the year, even if this were to end at the end of April. Every day is an adventure. Every day feels like a week.” 

Most believe they got tripped up on the question regarding the “work search requirement.” Typically, when people apply for unemployment benefits they have to prove they are actively searching for work. But these workers were laid off because their establishments closed due to COVID-19. They’re hoping to be hired back when and if their places of employment reopen. 

Bowser mentioned that the work-search requirement would be waived in a March 20 press conference. But eliminating that provision was also included in the emergency legislation passed by the D.C. Council on March 17. 

When faced with a dropdown menu, applicants wonder whether it’s better to be honest and select “no,” they’re not looking for work, or choose “yes,” and either lie about work they’re searching for or write in that they’re out of work because of COVID-19. 

“The real issue was the questions have not caught up to the situation we’re in so the system denied a lot of people,” says Dawn Vegas Williams, an out of work hospitality industry worker. She wrote that she couldn’t work because of COVID-19. “And I still got denied.” 

City Paper reached out to DOES for comment. Representatives responded by forwarding a press release about $25 Million Microgrant Program, which contained information about the changes DOES is making to the unemployment application process.

Mike Fox, another laid off hospitality industry worker, applied last week and struggled to use the website. “I have a background in web development,” he says. “I went through their code. Wow this is some terribly written code.” (Those who apply for unemployment are encouraged to apply online using a desktop or laptop using the Internet Explorer browser. Not everyone has access to computers at home.)

Eventually Fox completed the process and got an email confirmation that he was approved. But when he checked again he got the message that his claim was not payable. “With Bowser’s remarks saying you don’t have to be looking for a job right now because of the pandemic, almost everyone I know said, ‘No, I’m not looking for a job.’ Bowser said that would be waived. Four or five coworkers are in the same boat.”

Justin Robinson, who lost his hospitality industry job, has prior experience applying for unemployment so he’s become a resource for his restaurant and bar brethren. He provides regular updates with what he’s hearing, coupled with advice. He’s frustrated that the forms on the DOES website weren’t adjusted from the beginning of this crisis and is calling for greater leadership. “The vast majority of people are having a hard time,” he says. “It’s not a very intuitive process and it’s kind of hard getting answers.”

One week since the D.C. Council passed the emergency legislation, the DOES website hasn’t been updated to reflect the work search requirement change. At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who chairs the Labor and Workforce Development Committee, has been in contact with the city administrator about the situation and offers some encouraging news:

“The city administrator will be on the phone with a contractor about trying to make changes to the forms,” Silverman says. “We also talked about solutions on how to give people notice so people are aware of these changes.” 

DOES communicated today that unemployment applicants should disregard any messages they received that their claims will be delayed or denied if they are out of work because of COVID-19. They did not, however, provide a timeline on when the updates would be live. DOES is simultaneously instituting a change that eliminates the one-week waiting period for benefits.

For those applying in the meantime, Silverman and DOES say to check “no,” and write in that you are out of work because of COVID-19. She reiterates that workers who are laid off because of the public health crisis won’t be denied unemployment.

“It is in our interest to get money in the hands of folks,” Silverman says. “The scope of what is going on, we’re seeing a level of applications that is unprecedented …  I understand that people want the money as soon as possible, we will do everything within the system we have to make that happen.” 

Silverman also says that DOES is taking steps to increase their call capacity. The city administrator relayed that they’re in talks to contract a call center to address the long wait times.

Some laid off hospitality industry workers had success applying for unemployment if they did so on the early side. Bartender Sheena Wills lost her job on the early side because she was employed by U Street Music Hall. Concert venues were among the first businesses to close down to curb the spread of the virus. “I got myself in before the big wave,” she says. 

That said, she hasn’t received her first payment yet. And she’s wondering how useful it will be to some of her peers. “You can either do a direct deposit or get a pre-filled, prepaid card,” she explains. “It’s kind of crappy for people who don’t have a bank account. I can’t pay my rent with a prepaid debit card?” 

Others have given up. Matt Brown, a 22-year veteran of the hospitality industry, first tried to apply on March 16. “The page where I kept getting stuck was where you name your most recent employer. It would circle me back to the first page. That was a problem for a lot of people.” 

Brown even downloaded Internet Explorer. “I applied again yesterday and the same thing happened, except I got slightly farther,” he says. “There are people getting turned down and I can’t even get through.” 

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