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Kayla Johnson is one of the lucky ones. After losing her job at 9:30 Club at the start of the pandemic, she has received unemployment benefits week after week without fail. That luck ran out this week. Despite the fact that the unemployment portal displayed that her claim was processed on Tuesday, by Thursday she still hadn’t received her benefits. When she got through to the Department of Employment Services call center, an employee relayed that her benefits were delayed due to the Presidents Day holiday.
That didn’t sit right with Johnson. Throughout the pandemic, whenever there was a holiday on a Monday, she’d receive her benefits on Thursday instead of Wednesday. It’s now Friday and she hasn’t seen a cent. She says she can’t get through to the call center this morning to get answers.
At 1:30 p.m. yesterday, DOES tweeted that “as a part of ongoing modifications and system updates around the Continued Assistance Act, we are aware of a new technical issue that may have affected unemployment benefits payments for some claimants.” They also posted this message on their website.
Yet no one mentioned the technical glitch when Johnson called the agency. “It would have been easier if they were honest instead of giving us false hope,” Johnson says. “What I’m seeing from people is that they just want the cold hard facts. We just want our leadership to be honest with us.”
Another unemployed worker who reached out to City Paper confirms they too were told the reason for the delay was the Monday holiday. They also back Johnson’s observation that claims are typically paid on Thursdays on weeks when there are Monday holidays.
Phil, a former general manager of The Brixton, saw DOES tweet on Wednesday that the benefits division was closing at 1 p.m. for mandatory training. He wonders why call center employees weren’t instructed to provide claimants with clear answers about how the technology glitch was impacting their benefits and when it might be resolved. “Everyone answering the phone should have been giving the same standard answer,” he says. “That didn’t happen. If no one at DOES directed their folks answering the calls to make a universal statement that’s an epic failure.”
He’s particularly worried because he’s one of the unemployed workers with a multi-state wage claim. While the restaurant he worked at is in D.C., the management company that pays him is based in Maryland. He went 16 weeks without benefits over the summer and fears this technology glitch could create similar issues.
“Nobody is going to get answers they want on a Friday,” Phil says. “They thought they were getting money based on what’s in the system. Now you’re left with thousands of people who are in this scenario who have no idea what’s going on. No idea when checks are coming. No idea when they can put food on the table.”
He says management jobs in the hospitality industry are still hard to come by as bars and restaurants are still trying to keep their payrolls lean. Even though he’s only getting $150 per week in unemployment benefits, every little bit helps. “Where do the answers come from?” he asks. “Where’s the leadership is ultimately the question. We’re reliant upon this to try and get by. These explanations are just terrible. People can’t hope for the best and plan for the worst if there’s no timelines involved.”
City Paper heard directly from seven people who have not received benefits this week. Another 25 sounded off about the delay in a Facebook group of hospitality industry professionals.
DOES, which contracts a vendor to update its system, says workers whose claims were impacted by the technical glitch should expect to see back pay next week. The agency advises claimants to file for their benefits on Sunday and says they should receive their benefits on Wednesday. After publication, the agency expounded further with a statement:
“As part of ongoing modifications and system updates around the Continued Assistance Act, a technical process issue occurred with the unemployment benefits system administrator, OnPoint. Since we were first made aware of the issue, we have been working with the vendor to get it fixed as soon as possible. We understand how stressful this is for those awaiting payments, and we are doing everything we can to address the issue now and ensure it does not happen again in the future. We will begin issuing payments to all impacted claimants soon, and claimants can expect to receive their benefits within 2-3 business days.”
Mayor Muriel Bowser is aware of the problem, but couldn’t say how many are impacted. “We will investigate, get to the bottom of it, and get it fixed as soon as possible so that payment can be made,” said Bowser during a Thursday press conference.
As of Friday morning, the DOES call center was not taking calls. Instead, an automated message repeated the same vague explanation—a technical issue is disrupting some benefits—and said that DOES will provide an update when “information is available.” “We appreciate your patience and apologize for any inconvenience,” the message says. It has since been updated.
Councilmembers are also aware of the problem. Both At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who chairs the labor committee, and the Office of Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen tweeted about it. “This is why we need to complete [unemployment insurance] modernization, so we can make adjustments easier and fix issues quicker,” tweeted Silverman.
In a Feb. 8 press conference, DOES Director Dr. Unique Morris-Hughes said the agency expects all mandatory updates related to the Continued Assistance Act, federal legislation signed into law on Dec. 27, to be completed by Feb. 19 so payments can go out afterward. At this same presser, the director announced $11 million dollars worth of changes to the troubled unemployment system. Changes include more call takers and claim examiners and comprehensive training for those workers, along with technological enhancements to communication. However, DOES did not specify when the public should expect to see these changes.
This isn’t the first time unemployed workers who file in D.C. saw interruptions in benefits. It’s not even the first time this year. An estimated 4,000 unemployed workers did not receive benefits in January because of system updates, according to Morris-Hughes. Michael Cody, a furloughed cook at the Four Seasons Hotel in D.C., did not receive three weeks of benefits in early January. He couldn’t pay February rent. While he finally began receiving payments on Jan. 31, nothing landed in his bank account this week and he’s still owed back pay.
Silverman spoke with DOES early this afternoon and the agency couldn’t say how many were impacted. “It’s sounds like it’s a fairly broad group of claimants,” Silverman tells City Paper. DOES says it will notify claimants by email, robocall, and text message, as requested by the councilmember.
But will this happen again?
“Well I hope that we don’t have this happen again,” Silverman says. “We are likely going to have to make other changes to the UI system. There is going to be another federal package … We need to work with the vendor better in this old outdated system … We need to make sure that our vendor makes the adjustments without snafus for the claimants. Because the financial stakes are high for our claimants.”
This post has been updated to include comment from Councilmember Silverman.
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