Credit: Darrow Montgomery

James hasn’t received his unemployment benefits in 78 days. 

After being laid off from his bartending jobs at Streets Market and Cranes in March, he successfully applied for unemployment insurance. His benefits ran out after 26 weeks, as is customary, so he applied for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, a 13-week extension of benefits the federal government pays under the CARES Act. 

Despite placing more than 300 calls and sending more than 100 emails to unemployment offices in D.C. and Virginia, the Ward 8 resident has yet to see a cent. (James is a pseudonym because he fears being named would mean the unemployment offices would stop returning his emails altogether.)  

To pay for everyday essentials, he’s dipping into the savings he set aside to pursue his dream as a sports agent. Last year, James, who turns 50 on Thursday, graduated from the University of the District of Columbia, putting him one step closer to achieving that dream. But now it feels like he’s hit rock bottom. James had to ask his son to move in with his mother to save money. 

Why the hold up? James worked as a part-time bartender for two weeks last December in Virginia. “I worked a part-time job that I didn’t even like and now it comes back to haunt me,” James says. “For this to be in limbo so long is borderline negligence. This should be unlawful to do a family like this. I know I’m not the only one.” 

He is not the only one. “There are a lot of people who are emailing … who are saying they’ve been waiting six, eight, 10 weeks,” At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman said at Wednesday’s Department of Employment Services oversight roundtable. “This means they’re not receiving any money at that time.” 

DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes says her office is making a determination within 21 days of filing in 63.2 percent of all claims, PEUC claims included, and within 14 days for 48.6 percent of all claims. 

Individuals applying for PEUC have encountered thicker-than-usual red tape if DOES discovers that a claimant earned wages in Maryland or Virginia. “This is where it gets really, really complicated,” Morris-Hughes said at the roundtable. “We have to contact the other state if there are wages. The state has to make a determination. We have to look at the amount of wages in both jurisdictions.”

She went on to explain that there are several ways the determination can go depending on how much an employee earned elsewhere compared to D.C. “You may have more wages in base period in the other state and you may want to move forward with a claim in another state,” Morris-Hughes said. “You may not have enough wages in another state and want to keep the claim in D.C. Then you’ll come back to D.C. There are some cases where you may have made a comparable amount of wages in another state and D.C. and you may have to have it combined.”

Many unemployed workers report being shuffled back and forth between DOES and comparable agencies in neighboring jurisdictions. Morris-Hughes said DOES has tried to help by supplying claimants with language to use when discussing their claims with Maryland and Virginia. “I have to say this system doesn’t make sense to me at all,” Silverman told Morris-Hughes after presenting her with several case studies. “DOES did not create the policy,” the director responded. “We’re just trying to play by the rules of the game.”      

Is it legal for claimants to wait this long? The U.S. Department of Labor requires state departments to pay 87 percent of eligible claimants within 14 to 21 days of filing. 

“Given the volume of claims during the pandemic, few state unemployment offices will likely be able to meet the 21-day claims processing guidelines,” says Legal Aid attorney Drake Hagner. “That said, due to the critical need during this crisis, DOES needs to do a far better job of communicating.” 

“Over the last several months, Legal Aid has helped dozens of jobless workers, some of whom have waited months for payments,” Hagner continues. “Many of these claimants were not told the reason for the hold up in their benefits until a lawyer from Legal Aid contacted DOES. In many cases, the problem could have been resolved far earlier if DOES had communicated more clearly and proactively with the claimant.”

Eligible individuals will get PEUC back pay even after the program expires at the end of this month. Are you someone who has out-of-state wages? We’d recommend listening to Hagner and Silverman’s Facebook Live video session on Friday, where the two will discuss how to troubleshoot these issues. 
—Amanda Michelle Gomez and Laura Hayes (tips? tips@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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