The tens of thousands of people who file for unemployment benefits in the District should expect changes to the troubled system. The D.C. government is investing an additional $11 million in the unemployment insurance program, given the experiences of laid off workers in the last 11 months of the coronavirus pandemic—from miscommunication on the part of government officials to major delays in benefits.
“For this to be in limbo so long is borderline negligence,” said a Ward 8 resident who waited 78 days to receive Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation [PEUC], the 13-week extension for traditional unemployment claimants. “This should be unlawful to do a family like this. I know I’m not the only one.”
Here are changes to the Department of Employment Services that were announced on Monday during a mayoral press conference:
- Adding up to 200 new staff members, along with providing “comprehensive staff training” that aims to improve the quality of the interactions between staff and residents in need of assistance.
- Adding a chatbox feature to the website, so unemployed workers can get immediate answers from claim examiners or call takers.
- Robocalls and text messages to make agency announcements.
It’s unclear when unemployed workers should expect to see all these changes. “Technology improvements, communications enhancements, and the adding of staff are underway and will be announced when rollout is immanent [sic],” said a DOES spokesperson via email. “We will continue to provide updates through postings on the DOES website and the agency social media accounts.” DOES Director Dr. Unique Morris-Hughes did say that her employees will undergo training Feb. 17 and 26 so operations those days will be impacted.
The changes reflect what unemployed workers and their advocates have been requesting. At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who’s chair of the labor committee, wrote Mayor Muriel Bowser on Dec. 24, requesting that DOES hire and train more claim examiners and call takers.
“That is indeed good news,” said Bowser of the changes on Monday. “We know thousands of people have experienced just devastating loss because of the pandemic.”
DOES is still trying to implement the federal relief package signed into law on Dec. 27 called the Continued Assistance Act. The federal law extends CARES Act benefits like PEUC through March 13; the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), which provides an extra $300 per week; and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which provides unemployment insurance for gig or 1099 workers and independent contractors. The law also created Mixed Earners Unemployment Compensation (MEUC), a program for individuals who have earned at least $5,000 in part time income as independent contractors, gig, or 1099 workers. Individuals could apply for MEUC beginning Feb. 15 and should expect to see payments Feb. 19. DOES is making mandatory updates to implement the federal law, so individuals can file weekly certifications via DCnetworks. Expect all updates related to PEUC and PUA to be completed by Feb. 19, and people should already be seeing the extra $300, according to DOES.
At the presser, Morris-Hughes acknowledged that up to 4,000 unemployed workers saw interruptions to benefits in 2021 because DOES had to make a series of technological updates to extend PEUC and Extended Benefits (EB) under the Continued Assistance Act. The agency corrected the problem last week, and Morris-Hughes says nearly 3,000 people have since completed certification forms to begin receiving payments.
“Folks should receive what they need to recertify,” added Morris-Hughes. “We are always going through updates. Every evening at 7 p.m. we take a look at the system and make system updates.”
Michael Cody, a cook at the Four Seasons Hotel in D.C. who was furloughed in March due to the pandemic, is among the workers whose unemployment benefits were interrupted in January. Cody never had trouble getting benefits until last month. He called DOES nearly every week in January—always on hold for at least two hours, he says—to understand the problem. A call taker cited computer updates. Then, finally, on Jan. 31, Cody was able to file for unemployment—he got his $444 payment plus the extra $300 later that week. He was also able to file Feb. 7. He’s crossing his fingers for seeing benefits this Wednesday.
Cody considers himself one of the luckier unemployed workers. But the system glitches meant he wasn’t able to pay his roughly $1,400 in February rent. He hasn’t received any retroactive payments from DOES, and no one has told him when he should expect these 3 weeks of owed benefits. “It’s bad—it’s a bad situation,” says Cody. “And not knowing really doesn’t help at all. I think that’s the biggest thing, not knowing.” If he knew, Cody says he could then tell his landlord when they should expect rent.
Communication continues to be one of DOES’ greatest challenges. Morris-Hughes said the agency received over 800,000 calls since the beginning of the pandemic. “The longest person who had to wait was just under three hours,” said Hughes. It’s unclear how many of the 200 workers DOES is bringing on are going to be call takers. “I don’t take it lightly and that’s why we are taking action immediately,” the DOES director added.
If you start to notice changes to the program, let City Paper know by emailing me directly.
— Amanda Michelle Gomez, (tips? firstname.lastname@example.org)
This post has been updated to include comment from a DOES spokesperson.
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