Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Dozens of laid-off D.C. workers testified to the Council on Wednesday about the ongoing problems at the Department of Employment Services. They named problems that claimants have been experiencing since last spring: miscommunication from DOES, difficulties with out-of-state wages, interruptions in payments whenever the agency needs to make system updates to comply with federal law. 

The latest problem left countless claimants going without benefits for roughly one month, including Deb Witherspoon, a Capitol Hill resident who waited five weeks to receive money. This left many struggling to afford everyday necessities. DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes told the press that eligible claimants would begin receiving payment starting April 20, but some weren’t paid until just recently. And a number of claimants are still owed back pay. In light of everything that’s transpired since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, D.C.’s Office of the Inspector General is now investigating the agency over its handling of unemployment insurance.   

“It is difficult to sit here again and still see no significant changes at the operations of DOES,” said Zachary Hoffman, the executive vice president of the DC Bar and Restaurant Workers Alliance and a Ward 5 ANC Commissioner, during the oversight roundtable hosted by the Council’s labor committee.  

Roughly an hour into the roundtable, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who chairs the committee, announced that the Office of the Inspector General is going to conduct an audit of DOES. According to a letter sent to Morris-Hughes, the office will look into the “responsiveness” in processing claims; and the “controls over the accessibility, availability, and reliability” of the unemployment systems. The preliminary audit will begin around May 12.   

The number one issue some councilmembers are hearing about is unemployment. The legislators acknowledged the challenges the government agency is up against. There has been an unprecedented number of claims filed during the pandemic. Since March 13, 2020, 199,556 new claims have been filed. DOES is also working with a decades-old system that is due for modernization. Still, councilmembers noted the lack of data available to them and the public, like the number of claims actually processed and paid out. Councilmembers believe issues only get resolved when they or others get involved.      

“This isn’t how it’s supposed to work, that those who know to write their councilmember eventually can get their money. And those who don’t know are left to languish,” said Silverman.  

Morris-Hughes said that claims need to be escalated for people to get their money, Hoffman told the Council based on a conversation he had with the director. Councilmembers were troubled by the suggestion that lawmakers and adjudicators need to flag claims to be taken seriously, and plan to ask the director about this and more during a May 12 hearing. The hearing may also bring more clarity into the lack of accurate and consistent communication from the agency, despite millions of dollars of investment into technology and staff

“Why are people seeming to be caught off guard each time there is a change in the system and struggling to get information?” asked At-Large Councilmember Robert White. “So even if there are changes to the system, that doesn’t mean we can’t tell people what is about to happen or what is happening with clarity. And that is something we have not been able to do.”

Over the course of the four-hour hearing, communication was one of the top concerns cited from laid-off or part-time workers. One person who testified by the name of Brittany Goddard said she couldn’t reach anyone at DOES for over a year, so has yet to be paid. DOES has written to her once, saying she’s eligible but she could never speak to anyone by phone to discuss what the hold up is. She recently got accepted into law school, but cannot afford to pay unless she receives her benefits.  

Joshua Chaisson, co-founder and vice president of Restaurant Workers of America and a restaurant worker living in Maine, testified to overwhelmingly hearing from District workers. He believes the communication issues and repeated interruptions in payments are unique to the city. He referenced the experience of a fellow board member of the Restaurant Workers of America who lives in Seattle. When Washington paid a substantial amount of fraudulent claims, Chaisson said the local government notified laid-off workers that officials would be re-evaluating claims and explained what more they should expect. (Although, the Seattle Times reports that thousands of legitimate claimants are experiencing long call-wait times and a “bureaucratic nightmare” after Washington discovered potential fraud.)      

Miscommunication is an ongoing problem for DOES. Just Wednesday, the agency wrote to various individuals who receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance that some may have “incorrectly received emails that were intended for them and other claimants.” The email confused some who weren’t sure what the agency was referencing. “DOES took immediate action and any links that were sent via email are now disabled. Out of an abundance of caution, we recommend deleting the emails,” says the email from DOES, whose subject line reads “Protecting your PUA Claim Information.” DOES goes on to say that PUA claimants will receive a new email next week. 

One claimant, who requested anonymity to speak frankly and share screenshots of their correspondence with DOES, says they received a robocall and text message earlier in the week, saying that PUA claimants would receive an email asking them to “verify employment status.” The claimant never received any such email. When they reached out to their caseworker for more information, the caseworker said via email dated Tuesday: “I think those were sent out in error. I have received several emails regarding this but nothing has been sent to the staff from management.” 

DOES did not immediately respond to request for comment. The latest issue underscores a point that some laid-off workers made during their testimony: DOES appears to be in disarray. Or as one person put it, the right hand is not talking to the left.

— Amanda Michelle Gomez (tips? agomez@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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