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

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Some people who have been receiving unemployment benefits in D.C. were not able to file on Sunday. As a result, they did not receive weekly compensation that many depend on to afford housing and food. Department of Employment Services Director Unique Morris-Hughes says a systems update related to implementing President Joe Biden’s sweeping $1.9 trillion stimulus bill is causing the interruption. The federal legislation extended four unemployment programs. (See the DOES fact sheet for specifics.)

Updates to the District’s outdated unemployment system have repeatedly resulted in benefit interruptions. The last one, in mid-February, impacted more than 39,000 people. A technical glitch during the systems update related to implementing the federal Continued Assistance Act exacerbated the problem. A systems update in January meant an estimated 4,000 people did not receive benefits for a few weeks. It’s unclear how many are going without weekly benefits this time around. DOES did not respond to multiple media inquiries.  

City Paper heard from multiple laid off employees who file for traditional unemployment benefits but could not this past week. A few say they are getting an “Issue 98” error message, but have no idea what that means. Some are receiving a message that their claim can’t be filed online, so they’ll need to call. Others are being told to file via email until updates are completed. One claimant’s portal reads: “FUNDS NO LONGER AVAILABLE, PROGRAM HAS EXPIRED.” (At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who chairs the labor committee, has also been hearing from claimants encountering problems.)

The beginning of the week was especially confusing for these unemployed workers as they tried to figure out what was going on with their claim and if they’d get paid as usual on Wednesday. During a March 23 town hall, Morris-Hughes said as her agency works to implement the American Rescue Plan Act, which was signed into law March 11, claimants who’ve run out of benefit weeks will see a delay in compensation. She assured the public the systems update should be done by April 9. 

“If all of your unemployment eligible benefits weeks have expired, then this is going to impact you,” Morris-Hughes said. “If they have not expired, and you still have eligible benefit weeks, then you should continue to file your claim as usual and then you will receive your benefits.” 

She directed people to the DOES website, which says the agency is updating its systems to accommodate new extensions under federal legislation. “If you are experiencing difficulties navigating the system or certifying for benefits, please contact our Customer Navigation Center at 202-724-7000, Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 5:00pm, for assistance,” a notice on the site reads. Meanwhile, the operator at the center says they are experiencing higher than normal call volumes. 

People still have plenty of questions. Some individuals City Paper spoke with do not believe they’ve exhausted their benefits and do not understand why they cannot file for unemployment. Notably, the unemployment portal does not warn someone when they are about to run out of benefits. 

System updates also coincide with some claimants’ benefit year ending, adding to the confusion. One person’s portal says: “According to our records, your [Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation] claim has been stopped and you are ineligible to file a weekly claim. If you are still unemployed and would like to file a new claim for benefits, click on the ‘File a New Claim’ button below. Please note that if you have not worked and earned wages since 3/15/2020, you may not be monetarily eligible.” Some states have clearly and publicly communicated how federal legislation impacts complainants’ “benefit year ends” date. In New York, for example, the Department of Labor clearly outlines how claimants should proceed if they reached their one-year anniversary of filing an unemployment claim.   

Many of these workers are especially frustrated because they’ve repeatedly encountered issues over the last year when trying to receive their benefits. Some are still waiting on money owed from previous interruptions in benefits. In response to technical issues throughout the public health emergency, the Bowser administration announced an $11 million investment into the unemployment system. DOES did not specify when investments, from enhanced staffing to communication, will be implemented, but the department did send robocalls warning claimants about benefit interruptions during the last systems update in February. It’s unclear if DOES is sending robocalls or text messages this time. 

At a press conference on Thursday, Mayor Muriel Bowser said claimants have experienced multiple delays because Congress has passed multiple bills related to unemployment, requiring DOES to update its system according to new federal extensions and guidance. “We recognize that people need help. They need the benefits they’re entitled to,” she said. “My team—who is taking calls, handling claims, working with vendors to update the system—are doing everything they can to make that quicker and smoother and better communicate status.” 

 — Amanda Michelle Gomez, with additional reporting from Laura Hayes (tips? agomez@washingtoncitypaper.com

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