Exterior of D.C.'s Department of Employment Services headquarters
D.C.'s Department of Employment Services. Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

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In less than a month, Andy’s unemployment benefits will run out. He is currently on week 36 of his Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), a program created under the federal CARES Act for independent contractors and other workers who are ineligible for traditional unemployment. In D.C., these workers get a minimum of $179 every week for a total of 39 weeks. 

“What program will D.C. be offering to people on PUA?” he asks. “What do they expect us to do? How do they expect us to pay our bills? How can we survive with $0? Winter is coming. It’s not going to get any easier.” 

Andy, who works in international development, saw his income drop to zero in mid-January as the coronavirus pandemic began to impact travel. Like so many residents, Andy found even applying for PUA to be a nightmare. He was forced to wait until late April—around the time when D.C. started accepting and paying PUA claims—and then would spend five hours on the phone whenever he called the D.C. Department of Employment Services. When he finally spoke to a representative, Andy says they could not resolve any of his application issues. He finally received his first payment in mid-May, and just received retroactive payments between then and Feb. 2, the first day claimants can backdate their benefits. He’s been using the money to pay for the essentials—food, rent, and health care. Now, he fears losing the benefit he worked so hard to get. (Andy is a pseudonym because he requested anonymity due to privacy concerns.)  

A DOES spokesperson says individuals receiving PUA cannot apply for the Extended Benefits program, which provides an extra 13 weeks of cash assistance. To be eligible for the 13-week extension, an unemployed individual first needs to qualify for traditional unemployment insurance, then exhaust that 26-week benefit along with a 13-week benefit through the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program. 

The spokesperson says D.C. is ultimately awaiting “further federal guidance on how to assist those whose benefits are running out.”

“This type of statement means that they don’t care about PUA claimants at all,” Andy says, after learning that he and others like him are ineligible for further aid once they reach the end of their 39 weeks. “They don’t realize that we are people and we deserve the same rights as everyone else during the pandemic.” 

Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of workers will be without any cash assistance very soon unless local or federal lawmakers act. Workers might not even learn that they’ve exhausted all their benefits until they stop receiving payments because DOES does not have the technical capability to personally notify claimants when their benefits are about to run out. PUA is set to expire Dec. 31. President Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday afternoon that he ordered his representatives to stop negotiating on a stimulus package until after the election. 

So far, it’s been a difficult road for 1099 employees—the city’s drivers, freelance journalists, contractors, and other self-made types. PUA claimants had to wait a month into the public health emergency before they could apply for benefits. Once cleared, they waited weeks for aid. Only 20 percent of PUA claimants were paid within the first 21 days as compared to 51 percent of claimants who filed for traditional unemployment, according to Aug. 1 claims, the most recent data available. DOES argues that the percentage is more than 20 percent if measured from the date when someone first applied for PUA, not traditional unemployment. That point is moot for a PUA claimant who has to apply and be denied for UI before they can apply for PUA. They still typically wait longer for help than those workers with W-2 forms. 

Because they filed their claims weeks, if not months, after they first became unemployed, many workers are owed a large amount of back pay. The exact number of people owed back pay is unclear, and DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes told the Council on Sept. 30 that the agency has not disaggregated how many people are awaiting retroactive payments from the total number of pending claims. Her department was unable to tell City Paper that figure either, or the total number of PUA claimants among the 142,254 total claimants as of Oct. 1.   

“We will look at every single person’s claim who requests back pay,” Morris-Hughes told the At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who chairs the labor committee. “I do think it is important to note that we do have to review and it does take time.” Morris-Hughes also told the committee that her department only has ten adjudication specialists designated to PUA claims, among the 60 total.    

Now, claimants see other states offering up to 46 weeks of PUA benefits while D.C. is not. In New York, for example, individuals receiving PUA benefits also do not qualify for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation or Extended Benefits but will automatically receive a seven-week extension. The DOES spokesperson explains that “approval for extended benefits comes from the Department of Labor.” 

“At this time, the District of Columbia has not received approval of these extended benefits but remains in discussions with the Department of Labor,” they add.  

A state’s ability to trigger 46 weeks of PUA benefits has to do with the way the CARES Act was written, according to Michele Evermore, the senior researcher and policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project. It is not clear to Evermore if the federal government could extend PUA benefits without the D.C. Council passing legislation. At least 16 states with “high unemployment period” provisions in their laws are able to offer an extra seven weeks of PUA benefits. 

“This is actually the most complicated thing in all of unemployment right now,” says Evermore. “How does CARES say it has to be extended?” 

The Department of Employment Services struggled to manage an alphabet soup of new unemployment programs with its antiquated system. (D.C. spent millions over the years to upgrade its system but meager Council oversight resulted in missed deadlines.) States had less federal funding for administering unemployment benefits in fiscal year 2020 than they did in 2001, notes Evermore, but had to deal with an unprecedented number of claims.   

“This was a historic challenge for agencies. You gotta give them a little bit of leniency,” she tells City Paper. “Having said that, they could save them a lot of headache by getting better information to workers faster.”   

DOES has struggled to deliver unemployment information quickly and accurately. A recent example is when the Twitter account for the department advised a resident asking about PUA to apply for Extended Benefits. The spokesperson declined to comment on why the official account tweeted inaccurate information. 

Tom says he trusts a Reddit thread called “DC Unemployment Questions, Help and Resources” more than he does the DOES representatives he’s spoken with given his experience over the last few months. One representative, for example, incorrectly told him $179 is the maximum PUA benefit per week. (Tom is a pseudonym; he fears his candor could cost him his claims.)

He is a contractor who used to design, install, and maintain sound systems for music venues, restaurants, and bars. “If my clients’ businesses are closed. I’m not going to call and try to sell them stuff,” he tells City Paper. “I’m trying to come up with other business ideas, but that was my business up until COVID hit.”  

He applied for PUA benefits in August because it did not occur to him that he’d be eligible for anything. “I just assumed they weren’t going to deal with independent contractors because they never had,” Tom says. He started receiving payments in September but not the retroactive payments he requested for the time he was unemployed between March and August. His application number is in the tens of thousands, he says. With just 10 adjudicators, Tom does not expect to see back pay any time soon. “I have some compassion for DOES,” he says. “Reading small businesses finances—it is different to read an income statement and invoices than a W-2.” 

Never receiving his back pay and running out of his benefits is like walking a tightrope that’s on fire, Tom says. “It’s different categories of anxiety.” He’s using the this money to pay his health insurance. “They can’t terminate my policy but costs are still stacking up,” he says.

Mark Lee says he was one of the “lucky first and few” who received back pay. Lee believes he was only paid after he tweeted about the Department of Employment Services’ deficiencies. Lee, who was furloughed six months ago at both his jobs at D.C. Nightlife Council and the Washington Blade, is a well known figure in local politics and journalism circles.   

“I doubt anyone else received personal phone calls from agency leadership referencing their tweets when being ‘pulled out of line’ for special attention,” he said in his testimony to Council.

Lee tells City Paper that trying to get federal dollars that were owed to him required “six weeks of agony.” At one point in the process, DOES froze his PUA benefits for four weeks because they treated his back pay as an overpayment. The freeze amounted to $2,700. His claim examiner had to manually recreate his unemployment record and reinsert all the data associated with his case to resolve the error. He just got all his payments for the period between March 16 and May 2, when he first filed for PUA. He is just missing two weeks of “Trump money” or the $300 weekly benefit through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“I don’t see how they are going to get through all these people,” he says, given that there are likely tens of thousands of PUA claimants and DOES has to manually insert their data so as to not crash the system. 

He does not fault the claim examiners. “My claims examiner practically cried on the phone with me,” he says. The way he views, leadership is putting adjudicators in an impossible position.

“Through this experience, tens of thousands of people are discovering what ordinary people are going through with SNAP benefits, Medicaid benefits. People are treated like shit in this town,” Lee says. “Our local government does a really poor job of assisting those in need and makes them jump through hoops.”