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Everyone from laid-off workers to councilmembers has criticized the Department of Employment Services for its communication. Workers who file for unemployment have repeatedly said they receive inaccurate or conflicting information from the department’s call takers. “The call center is a disaster,” says At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who chairs the Council’s labor committee.  

On Wednesday at a Council roundtable, DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes offered an explanation: The federal government had DOES create seven different unemployment programs over the course of the coronavirus pandemic. But the U.S. Department of Labor did not offer any training to implement the programs. DOES had to create training programs in-house. Now, call takers are struggling to provide information to laid-off workers who are desperately in search of answers, leaving them further confused and angry. 

It’s not clear whether the communication problem lies with the department’s training materials or the contractors themselves. The director’s testimony sometimes contradicted workers’ lived experiences. At one point during the hours-long roundtable, Morris-Hughes said people shouldn’t refile for unemployment when they experience issues, or their claims will be flagged for fraud. But some workers say they have been instructed to file a new claim on their portal. The communication problem is not limited to the call center. Last week, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claimants received an email from DOES they weren’t supposed to, confusing some of those claimants.  

What is clear is the D.C. unemployment system is deeply confusing to lawmakers and laid-off workers alike. The system appears to be bogged down in bureaucracy and information is not always communicated plainly. Councilmembers struggled to get the filing process straight during the roundtable discussion. “No one should [have to] be an expert in filing for unemployment,” said At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson.

DOES contracts with Codice and Capitol Bridge to manage the call center, however representatives from the companies did not appear before the Council. (Some DOES employees also take calls.) Testifying to the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development and the Committee on Government Operations and Facilities on Wednesday, Morris-Hughes said providing accurate or consistent information is not a requirement of the vendors’ contracts. “The issues that you are raising about the quality of the interaction between the call taker and the claimant is not a criteria that is evaluated,” she told Councilmembers. 

Only staffing levels and the total number of calls answered, abandoned, and completed are obligations of the vendors’ contracts. Morris-Hughes said the vendors are currently “meeting expectations.” Although, the director said the department internally evaluates the quality of calls. 

“I believe that there is an opportunity to improve the quality of training,” Morris-Hughes told councilmembers. “We do not desire our different call takers to give out different types of information.” 

Morris-Hughes also empathized with the call takers. “The core issue here is the changing guidance that comes from the Department of Labor,” said Morris-Hughes. “Not a single person on this Zoom meeting can tell anyone with certainty all of the requirements that we are required to implement. So can you imagine a call taker who is entry level, learning all of these things and memorizing them, having the scripts, tabbing the scripts out to be able to search and answer a question? It is a difficult task.”

Codice and Capitol Bridge did offer written testimony ahead of the roundtable. In the company’s testimony, Codice says agents process more than 1,000 call requests per day by phone and “successfully” resolve more than 90 percent. The company has 25 agents and three supervisors who manage unemployment calls. “The calls that we receive each day are very complex,” the letter says. “At times, they can be challenging. Claimants can be very anxious, disgruntled, and occasionally abusive. However, our call takers are equipped to deal with these calls. At Codice, our supervisors and staff receive high quality training on handling these calls.” 

Call takers are not expected to resolve claimants’ issues but instead offer information. Claim examiners resolve claims. A point of tension is that a claimant cannot just call the call center and ask to speak to a claims examiner, or an adjudicator for that matter. Currently, DOES has more call takers than claim examiners, as Henderson pointed out. Morris-Hughes responded that this is because there was an urgent need to answer calls at the start of the pandemic. The total number of workers who have full authority to close a claim is 103. (DOES also has 100 adjudicators, but those workers can only support or validate claims.) The number of claimants who have not received all their benefits, including those waiting for backpay, is over 2,800. There may be issues with parts of their claims. 

As of May 5, over 114,150 people have been paid. Over 39,700 people were deemed “monetarily ineligible.” Morris-Hughes also says her department identified over 133,290 issues. She says some claimants have multiple issues, sometimes three to four. One of the most common problems is receiving compensation outside of D.C. 

Over a year into the pandemic, most councilmembers were done empathizing with DOES for having to use antiquated technology. (On Point Technologies, the vendor who is responsible for the unemployment website, declined to testify.) They say claimants have encountered the same communication issues all 14 months. 

“DOES does not know how to give clear information to claimants … and needs a complete management overhaul when it comes to the UI program,” Silverman said at the start of the roundtable. “This is a human problem. This is not an IT problem.” 

Silverman and Morris-Hughes bumped heads multiple times during the roundtable. The director even threatened to end the hearing. Morris-Hughes took issue with councilmembers sharing their own information on unemployment. She requested that they share DOES information to avoid any misunderstanding. Silverman says she requested that the information be explained in layman’s terms but never received it. Morris-Hughes did agree to Silverman’s request to walk through the issues of 10 different claimants so the labor committee could better understand the scope of commonly cited problems.

Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George also requested information in layman’s terms. Oftentimes claimants receive code numbers when they encounter problems. While hesitant to provide this information, Morris-Hughes offered information on coding: Code 55 means someone filed receiving wages in another state; Code 65 means someone filed more than one claim; Code 83 means someone failed identity verification; and Code 89 means administrative fraud. 

The Office of the Inspector General is going to conduct an audit of DOES, Silverman announced last week at a roundtable, where dozens of laid-off workers testified to experiencing problems when trying to receive benefits. Some went months without payments. Morris-Hughes said over 13,100 claimants were not immediately paid in March because the department had to implement federal legislation. That is 1 in 5 claimants who saw a delay in benefits, noted Silverman. On Monday, Mayor Muriel Bowser didn’t sound worried about the audit. “The OIG does audits all the time,” she said. 

“I can gather what it is going to say. It’s going to say that it is an antiquated system that faced a global pandemic and that we need to replace the system. And we are certainly going to do that,” said Bowser.    

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

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