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

Update: The Council unanimously passed the Unemployment Benefits Extension Emergency Act late Tuesday afternoon.

Just a week before some workers were about to run out of unemployment benefits, a lifeboat arrived. A bill to extend unemployment benefits for D.C.’s independent contractors, gig and self-employed workers by an additional seven weeks is up for a vote at Tuesday’s legislative meeting and is expected to pass.

The Unemployment Benefits Extension Emergency Act, which At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman introduced, would also extend benefits for individuals who qualify for traditional unemployment by an extra seven weeks. Unemployed workers would have to re-apply for the additional aid through D.C.’s Department of Employment Services, as the local agency does not automatically extend benefits the way some states do.  

Some 1099 workers—the city’s drivers, freelance journalists, and other contract workers—who became unemployed during the public health emergency will exhaust their entire 39 weeks of benefits by the week of Oct. 25. These workers cannot apply for any other unemployment program, be it Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation or Extended Benefits, as City Paper first reported earlier this month. They get benefits from a program created under the federal CARES Act called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance because they do not qualify for traditional unemployment insurance.

“Extending benefits by 7 weeks means this will almost get me through Christmas,” says Andy. (Andy is a pseudonym used for privacy concerns.) He worked in international development before the pandemic hit D.C. and is scheduled to run out of his PUA benefits by Halloween if local and federal lawmakers do not act fast. 

“This won’t pay anywhere near 100 percent of my expenses,” he says, “but it will allow me to stay afloat for just a little bit longer. I’ll be able to eat, pay my health care, pay some rent, buy groceries … and all of that money is spent right here in Washington, D.C.” 

Andy hopes the mayor immediately signs the bill so he does not see an interruption in aid. “With absolutely no movement at the federal level, this is the minimum that local governments must do to help people who are struggling,” he says.  

More than a dozen states already provide PUA claimants an extra seven weeks of benefits on top of their 39 weeks. They were able to do so because of a “high unemployment period” written into their local laws. Silverman’s bill would amend the local unemployment compensation law to provide individuals with extra aid entirely paid for by the federal government. So long as D.C. experiences high unemployment, which is defined as 8 percent under existing federal law, the extra aid kicks in. The city’s unemployment rate stands at 8.7 percent.

“We need to make sure that our families who have been impacted by COVID economically have as many resources as possible to remain stable during this pandemic and recession,” Silverman tells City Paper. “I want to make sure we are using every lever we have to put money in the pockets of these families.”

Even after the mayor signs the bill, a DOES spokesperson says that the U.S. Department of Labor will need to determine that D.C. met federal requirements before the local agency can pay additional weeks of extended benefits for unemployed residents.

The bill was nearly pulled due to the administrative costs associated with implementing the seven-week extension. Silverman’s office anticipates D.C. will be reimbursed for these costs, but needed the mayor to agree to the cost if the federal government denies the reimbursement. Silverman’s office also did not expect implementation to be especially costly, but acknowledges it is harder and more expensive (the estimated cost is $500,000) given the antiquated system DOES is working with.

One of the nation’s top experts on unemployment, Michele Evermore of the National Employment Law Project, says she doesn’t foresee any unintended consequences of passing it. “I see absolutely no downside at all to this,” says Evermore. “This just actually brings more federal money into the District and it goes to people who are going to spend it.” 

“During the last recession, every dollar in unemployment insurance money that went out into the community generated $1.61 in local economic activity,” she continues. “This is good for workers out of work. It is also good for small businesses and landlords and anybody who will not experience secondary hardship when people run out of money.” 

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson expects the Council to pass Silverman’s bill. The question now becomes what will happen Dec. 31, when programs created under the CARES Act are set to expire, and how D.C. will address its dwindling unemployment trust fund (the chairman anticipates having to raise the unemployment tax “to maintain the status quo”). Mendelson’s message to those whose benefits end in January: “Change the president.” 

“We are the victim of national politics,” he tells City Paper. “I don’t have an answer for what happens after Dec. 31 if the federal government continues to fail the states.” 

The seven-week extension is only good so long as people know about it. Silverman, for one, is concerned that not enough unemployed individuals know that they have to reapply to get any of their extra benefits. DOES does not notify an individual when their benefits are about to run out, whether they are receiving traditional benefits and exhaust their first round of benefits at 26 weeks but apply for PEUC and then EB, or PUA and exhaust their benefits at 39 weeks. 

Over the course of several interviews with PUA claimants, this reporter had to inform them that they do not qualify for the EB program and will run out of benefits after 39 weeks. It’s not surprising given that the city’s own unemployment agency has at least on one occasion advised a resident asking about PUA to apply for EB even though PUA claimants are currently ineligible. 

Silverman has asked DOES if it could automatically extend individuals’ benefits as to alleviate the burden on individuals who are already struggling to get by. In a recent hearing, DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes suggested the city’s system might not have the technical bandwidth to do this, but she would look into the matter. The director has yet to follow-up with Silverman on this matter, according to the councilmember. 

A DOES spokesperson did not directly respond to this reporter’s question on whether the agency is looking into automatically extending benefits. But, the spokesperson says, “Information on eligibility and how to apply for PUA, PEUC and Extended Benefits have been shared with potential and active claimants through: our UI newsletter, social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, the DOES website, in the DCNetworks portal where claimants file their weekly certification, and hard copies are available at the front desk of our main DOES lobby at 4058 Minnesota Avenue NE, Washington, DC 20019.”