Department of Employment Services exterior
Credit: Darrow Montgomery

D.C. workers who were laid off during the coronavirus pandemic and filed for unemployment could start seeing payments again this week after going roughly one month without benefits. Department of Employment Services Director Unique Morris-Hughes said claimants should receive payments starting Tuesday, April 20, so long as they have been filing weekly online or by email and, more importantly, the agency has cleared them for eligibility.  

“As long as they’ve certified and they’re eligible, there will not be any issues with them receiving their payments,” Morris-Hughes said during a press call on Monday.   

It’s unclear how many people the agency has deemed ineligible in the latest round of disbursements, or how quickly claimants are being notified of their eligibility. 

Thousands of Washingtonians have not received unemployment benefits since late March because DOES had to update its antiquated system to implement President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, the American Rescue Plan Act, which was signed into law March 11. Morris-Hughes announced on Friday that the system updates related to the federal legislation were completed, so claimants could start accessing benefits without interruptions. The director originally estimated that updates would be completed by April 9. They ultimately took 24 days. 

A few unemployed workers, specifically people who file for traditional unemployment, confirm that the portal was updated for them when they logged on to certify and file their claims on Sunday. They are relieved to see the portal updated but will not be singing anybody’s praises even after unemployment benefits reach their bank accounts. These people have repeatedly encountered problems since they started applying for unemployment months ago. 

Some claimants have seen a delay in receiving benefits multiple times this year alone. Every time the D.C. government makes updates to adhere to federal law, they seem to shock the decades-old unemployment system, which is due for a modernization. (A modernization was expected to happen by 2020, Morris-Hughes told the Council in May 2018.) The interruption in February impacted nearly 40,000 people because a technical glitch on the part of the vendor exacerbated the problem.     

“The biggest issue is that nobody at DOES knows what’s going on at all times,” says Zachary Hoffman, the executive vice president of the DC Bar and Restaurant Workers Alliance and a Ward 5 ANC Commissioner. Hoffman has filed for unemployment since March 2020, but has not received payments in recent weeks. “Nobody has the same answers. Like one person will tell me it’s a technical thing and then I’ll ask the director and she’ll say, ‘Well, no, it’s not technical. It’s actually this.’” 

“My question was, what is holding up payments?” Hoffman continues. “And it may be a myriad of things, but nobody has been able to articulate the specifics.”

Hoffman expects to see payments this week. But the unemployment system is still not working properly for everyone. City Paper knows of at least one person who could not file for unemployment on the portal Sunday, and had to email her weekly claim certification again. She had been receiving payments through Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a program created under the CARES Act for gig workers and others who do not qualify for traditional unemployment. DOES had let some eligible workers submit claims via email while the agency was making system updates so they could eventually receive payments.  

Morris-Hughes said a “subset” of the nearly 70,000 claimants who successfully file on any given week were “impacted” by the system updates. As many as 2,500 of those claimants were individuals whose benefit year expired because they’ve been filing for unemployment for at least 12 months, or since the start of the pandemic. When DOES implemented the American Rescue Plan Act, which extends benefits for more than one year, this specific issue should have been resolved. 

But there are myriad other issues Morris-Hughes said could be getting in the way of claimants and their payments. She identified three common issues: a claimant is no longer eligible for PUA because they earned wages while filing for unemployment; a claimant has out-of-state wages; or a claimant is being suspected for fraud. 

DOES has 300 call takers and close to 300 case adjudicators who are responsible for answering and resolving claimants’ issues, according to Morris-Hughes. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration also invested $11 million in the unemployment system two months ago. But two claimants’ experience with the unemployment system do not always square with what the DOES director claims. Their experiences demonstrate how complicated the process to get benefits has become for laid-off workers, even months into unemployment.     

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“The system is fully functional,” Morris-Hughes told reporters on Monday. “There are no issues in terms of functionality for our traditional UI claimants and those that are on PUA.”

This does not appear to be true for Deb Witherspoon, a Capitol Hill resident who initially filed for unemployment in March 2020. A screenshot of her portal on Monday at 5 p.m. shows the following message: “You are not eligible to file for continued claims at this time. Your benefit year has ended. If you are still unemployed and would like to file a new claim for benefits, please click on the File a new claim button below. Please note that if you have not worked and earned since 3/22/2020, you may not be monetarily eligible.”   

Witherspoon says she’s been getting this message all April. She’s hasn’t been able to file on the portal since March 21. She called the Customer Navigation Center about six times to figure out what was going on. Witherspoon says she got a different answer each time she called. “The first person said it’s just a system update, wait it out. Another person said that they had no idea what was going on at all. The third person told me to refile, which I knew I was not supposed to do,” says Witherspoon. “The answers were just all over the place.”

A call taker eventually told her to email DOES to file weekly benefits because her portal wouldn’t let her get past the “not eligible” message. When she started doing that, Witherspoon says she received no confirmation emails.

Witherspoon has not received much clarification since. The most recent call taker she spoke with said he did not understand why her portal was not automatically updated but would look into it. He reassured her she should receive payments this week if she’s been filing via email. 

Meanwhile, Morris-Hughes said her agency has identified a number of PUA claimants who have become ineligible since they’ve first applied without realizing it. Morris-Hughes says they are identifying claimants who fit this description as the agency checks wages quarterly, which is required under the newest federal legislation.  

“If you are in the PUA program, you’re not supposed to work a traditional job. Because if you do, then you are eligible for the traditional UI program and you have to come off of the PUA program,” said Morris-Hughes. “I would say more than half of the individuals that have contacted us, that have difficulty filing a claim, have worked at least one day and at least made a couple of hundred dollars in the last year that requires an additional review of eligibility.”

Witherspoon says she has not worked a single shift since she was laid off at the start of the pandemic, in D.C. or elsewhere. But Witherspoon did work in retail. She says she was rejected from traditional unemployment before PUA. (PUA has a broad worker eligibility under the CARES Act.) This is Witherspoon’s second interruption in benefits. She didn’t receive one week of benefits in February. This month-long interruption means Witherspoon is running out of money to pay for the medication she needs. 

Witherspoon is beside herself. She’s not the only one. Hoffman says laid-off workers on unemployment are visiting the DOES headquarters on Tuesday in protest over treatment.

“Everyone that’s dealing with this is in a completely upside down life right now, that they don’t really have the time or energy to organize around this issue because they need to live,” he says.

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Sunday, April 18, is the last time Chelsey will be filing for unemployment. She is still not employed full time. But she’d rather work two part-time jobs at restaurants that cannot offer her enough shifts to earn a living wage than continue to deal with the unemployment system.  

Chelsey, who asked that her last name be omitted for fear of losing her job, applied for unemployment when her restaurant temporarily closed in March 2020. It took two months for her to receive any payments, and she’s experienced about six interruptions in benefits between then and now. The first two months she was without a job, Chelsey had to ration food. She learned to set aside some money in case her unemployment was delayed again.   

“I don’t want to deal with unemployment anymore,” says Chelsey. “I’ll be making less than I would if I was on unemployment, but I can’t take it anymore.” 

Chelsey doesn’t understand why implementing the American Rescue Plan Act led to delays, when the federal legislation was supposed to extend benefits and prevent disruption. Call takers cited different reasons every time she called in search of answers. “At least they’ve invested in their infrastructure, because now you can actually get someone on the phone and the people that you talk to are really nice, kind of pleasant,” she says. “They don’t know what they’re talking about. They just read from a script.”

Communication continues to be a major criticism of DOES. In an attempt to assuage anxiety and anger among claimants, councilmembers have been sharing information on social media and even offering to help resolve a person’s claim issue if they email them directly. However, Morris-Hughes said the best thing councilmembers can do is elevate DOES information. 

“I get that a lot of folks think they’re UI experts. People sharing their social security number through Twitter, councilmembers offering guidance on eligibility,” Morris-Hughes told reporters. “The only official source of information is the Department of Employment Services. So that’s very, very important to note here, because people are giving out wrong information.” She advised claimants to attend live webinars that occur twice a week or subscribe to the DOES newsletter, and councilmembers to request community meetings as Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White had. 

Claimants City Paper spoke with say other communication DOES promised, from a chat box on the portal to robocalls, have not materialized. “What really, really, really irritates me the most is they could have sent a preliminary email and said, ‘Hey, guys, expect this month-long, three-week whatever disruption.’ People could have planned for this had they been transparent,” says Chelsey. 

Laura Hayes contributed reporting.