Cocktail server Pimmie Juntrang in a park
Pimmie Juntrang Credit: Supee Juntranggur

Before the pandemic, Pimmie Juntranggur worked as a cocktail server at Estuary inside the Conrad hotel in downtown D.C. When she was laid off in March, she successfully applied for unemployment compensation and received a steady weekly disbursement of about $400 for 26 weeks. Collecting unemployment allowed her to continue sending about $1,000 a month to Thailand to support her family.

When her benefits expired on Sept. 12, Juntranggur immediately applied for 13 more weeks of benefits through the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program. PEUC is the first of several temporary programs to ensure that unemployed or underemployed D.C. residents keep receiving income as the pandemic continues. It was included in the federal CARES Act and expires in December.

PEUC is targeted relief for traditional unemployment benefits claimants, not for independent contractors, who file for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

It’s been six weeks since Juntranggur applied for PEUC, and she says she hasn’t received any money, despite repeatedly contacting the D.C. Department of Employment Services. “What’s happening here is, not only is everyone struggling financially, but emotionally, it’s like Unsolved Mysteries,” she says. “No one can give you a specific answer besides, ‘Wait 21 business days and try back.’”

She has established a strategic routine for calling DOES, knowing she’ll experience long hold times. “I have to charge my phone and leave it on speaker phone because no one will pick up for two hours,” Juntranggur says. “If a call drops, you have to start again. There can be no elevator rides. I have to keep my signal alive at five bars at all times.” 

This is a common refrain for hospitality industry workers, many of whom have been on the same timeline as Juntranggur since Mayor Muriel Bowser closed restaurants and bars to on-premises consumption on March 16. Mass layoffs followed almost immediately. While some people have seen their jobs restored, many employees have not been called back to work and exhausted their unemployment benefits in September. 

A private Facebook group where hospitality industry professionals in the region talk shop and troubleshoot issues is rife with comments from workers saying they haven’t received any PEUC since applying five to six weeks ago. At least 30 group members shared experiences about struggling for more than a month to obtain their extra benefits. They’re running out of money to pay rent and put food on the table, and are becoming more dependent on others. “Pretty much my boyfriend is keeping me alive,” Juntranggur says. “If I was by myself, I’d be out on the street eating rice and fish sauce every day.” 

Juntranggur experienced an initial hiccup when she first applied for unemployment insurance benefits in March. She once appeared in a commercial for the MGM National Harbor and every time the advertisement airs, she earns a nominal royalty fee from the Maryland-based business. “That was great, but now it makes my claim have problems,” she says, as it’s considered “income reported in two states.” 

Juntranggur says a friend who also applied for PEUC recommended she reach out to her claim examiner to move the process along. “When I called DOES and tried to get the name of my claim examiner, they told me no one has yet been assigned to my case after all this time,” she says.

A representative from DOES insists there is no delay and all PEUC applications are reviewed for eligibility in the order received. “If any additional information is needed, a claims examiner will contact the applicant and request the missing information,” they tell City Paper. “As of Oct. 23, 21,287 unique individuals that have filed PEUC claims have received at least one PEUC payment.”  

If Juntranggur was eligible for benefits for 26 weeks, why should she not automatically qualify for 13 more? That’s a question At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, continues to ask DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes. States like California and Massachusetts have systems in place to automatically transition claimants to the next phase of benefits and avoid potentially devastating disruptions.

Silverman first posed the strategy to DOES in a Sept. 30 hearing. Morris-Hughes suggested the city’s system might not have the technical bandwidth to do this, but she committed to looking into the matter. Then Silverman followed up in an Oct. 9 letter that was also signed by Councilmembers Charles Allen, Robert White, Brooke Pinto, and David Grosso

“We’re still waiting for a response,” Silverman says. “It would benefit not only the household and the worker, but our city. We want to keep benefits flowing to workers so they will spend their money in our local businesses. That money will help keep our economy afloat.” 

The DOES representative says the agency “appreciates the recommendation of the committee, but we are in contact with the U.S. Department of Labor and were advised to follow the law. We will not break the law at the Council committee’s request.”

They cite a law requiring those seeking PEUC benefits to file an application. Yet the Massachusetts government guide to PEUC clearly states, “If a claimant has been receiving regular UI benefits and those benefits are exhausted, PEUC will automatically begin, and the claimant does not have to take any further action.”

Silverman says a “bulk of people” recently hit the gap and are having trouble getting the next 13 weeks of benefits started. “There are people who think unemployment insurance is a yearlong program who don’t know what is happening; people who know there’s an extension but don’t know how to apply; and people who have applied and nothing has happened.” Automating the process, she says, solves all three problems. 

DOES says it spreads the word through email blasts, a newsletter, social media, the DOES website, and the DCNetworks portal, where claimants file their weekly certification.

Silverman reiterated her concerns at another hearing about unemployment benefits held on Oct. 26. While the councilmember acknowledged that 150,000 people have applied for unemployment benefits in the District, causing a surge in claims, and noted the agency badly needs to modernize its technology, she wondered aloud why Morris-Hughes didn’t join the hearing to witness testimony. 

“Given the focus on problem-solving for both our workers and our employers, I am disappointed that DOES has decided not to testify at this hearing,” Silverman told participants. “I am concerned about the message it sends to our workers and employers—that hearing from them about their problems and concerns and trying to come up with ways to make them stable at this time isn’t a valuable use of time for the agency.” 

The unemployment process has been a boondoggle from the beginning. Barriers, including the troublesome work-search requirement question that tripped up applicants and monthslong delays, have caused significant stress and anxiety.

Some Washingtonians who were working in hospitality when COVID-19 hit are now pursuing new career paths because of their experiences with DOES during the pandemic. Alex Béjean is one of them. She previously worked at Casolare in Glover Park, but took a bartending job at Willie’s next to Nationals Park in February. Coming off of a World Series win, Béjean thought she could work some lucrative shifts to help pay for nursing school. She enrolled in January. 

But Béjean only worked one shift before Willie’s closed on March 15. She applied for unemployment benefits the next day and consistently received funds for 26 weeks, which positioned her to continue paying for school. Willie’s eventually reopened, but only gave Béjean about 10 hours per week because business was slow. She was still able to collect benefits because she was only earning about $150 per week. Then Willie’s closed for renovations after Labor Day and laid off Béjean again. 

When Béjean applied for PEUC on Sept. 27, she says she received an email from DOES explaining that she was approved for $389 a week for 13 weeks. But when the money never came, she began pressing DOES for information.

 “They finally answered and told me that I had reported income in Virginia,” she says. “I’ve never worked in Virginia. I’ve never filled out any forms in Virginia. I’ve never given anyone my Social Security number. It’s been five weeks and I still haven’t heard anything about it. I have school to pay for. I have rent to pay for.” 

Even though she hasn’t seen any income for five weeks, she considers herself fortunate because she has a boyfriend to support her and doesn’t have children. “I see myself as lucky, but it really solidified my decision to leave the industry,” Béjean says. “I always wanted to work in the industry while I was a nurse, but this really did it for me.” 

LaTricia, who asked to be identified using only her first name, had a similar experience. She was working as a server and corporate trainer at b DC Penn Quarter when the restaurant temporarily closed in March because of the pandemic. She applied for unemployment benefits on March 17, and after a two week delay, she received money “every week like clockwork” for 26 weeks.

When she applied for PEUC five weeks ago, DOES flagged her claim and said she was earning benefits in Maryland, despite the fact that she doesn’t live in Maryland and has never worked in Maryland. “They said it’s a case-by-case basis and they’d get back to me and hopefully I’d get my benefits this week.” 

Claimants who work in two or more jurisdictions seem to have the most trouble obtaining PEUC benefits, because DOES often has to take a closer look at their paperwork. “When a claimant files for PEUC benefits, the system checks for wages in other states,” the DOES representative says. “If wages are found, the claim must be investigated to determine if those out-of-state wages qualify the individual for a regular unemployment insurance claim. This requirement is mandated by the U.S. Department of Labor.” 

It’s not uncommon for hospitality industry professionals to work several jobs simultaneously. For example, Silverman says she spoke with an employee who works at a Panera in D.C. on weekdays and a Panera in Silver Spring on weekends. The individual has to decide whether or not to file a combined-wage claim, which Silverman says can slow the process down.

Neither LaTricia nor Béjean fall into the combined-wage category despite being classified as such, making their situations particularly dumbfounding. In response, the DOES representative says, “a claims examiner will contact the applicant to obtain additional information, if needed. Applicants should regularly check their email, including their spam or junk folder, for requests for information regarding their claim.”

Yet LaTricia still hasn’t received any disbursements because of the hang-up. “It’s a struggle—no checks for five weeks,” LaTricia says. “I’ve had to cut back a lot. I’ve been going to food banks and signing up for food and produce every week. I have some people who are helping me, but it’s a struggle every day not knowing where to go or where to turn.” 

Her mental health has taken a hit. She’s considering seeing a therapist and trying to stay positive by exercising. She’s leaving the hospitality industry after 18 years and currently applying for jobs with Amazon and UPS.

In the meantime, she has some advice for DOES. “It’s been eight months now, you guys really need to get your affairs in order,” she says. “There shouldn’t be any excuses for why people aren’t getting money. People are really out here struggling.” 

Silverman’s website offers helpful resources for those looking for more information on what benefit extensions are available.