Department of Employment Services exterior
Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

A former employee of the Department of Employment Services is suing the agency alleging he’s owed tens of thousands of dollars in overtime pay for the extra time he spent on the clock during the pandemic. DOES is the very agency that maintains an Office of Wage-Hour Compliance tasked with recovering unpaid wages for employees wronged by their employers.

“This is definitely one of the most ironic cases I’ve had to file over the last decade,” says DCWageLaw attorney Justin Zelikovitz. He’s representing Andre Chisolm, who the complaint says worked at DOES for 14 years. “Suing the agency that is responsible for enforcing D.C.’s overtime laws for, of all things, a failure to pay overtime.”

In the lawsuit filed in D.C. Superior Court Tuesday, Chisolm is asking for close to $75,000. The complaint says he worked 857 overtime hours in 2020 and 2021. He was paid an hourly wage of $40.84 at the time as an unemployment claims supervisor, but alleges he was not paid time-and-a-half whenever he worked more than 40 hours a week.

DOES paid Chisolm back-wages for about 65 overtime hours earlier this month, according to the complaint. That leaves 792 hours that haven’t been addressed. And, D.C. law says you can triple the amount of late or overtime wages as liquidated damages. The unpaid wages, liquidated damages, and attorneys’ fees add up to $73,046.94.

Chisolm calls his work during the pandemic both stressful and rewarding. “Servicing those who lost their jobs due to the pandemic was my colleagues and I first priority in determining eligibility for much needed unemployment insurance benefits,” he says. “However, the pandemic should not have prevented the proper payment of overtime wages due to those impacted employees. The agency’s mission is to protect employees rights, being an employee of the agency should not excluded us from this protection.”

The complaint expands on this topic.

“Because of the massive layoffs that occurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic, [Chisolm] worked a tremendous number of overtime hours over the last year and a half,” the complaint says. “DOES, the very agency charged with enforcing District of Columbia employment laws, failed to pay plaintiff overtime wages for these overtime hours. In this failure, DOES not only betrayed its own mandate, but also failed the thousands of unemployed D.C. workers whose unemployment insurance claims have not been processed on a timely basis.”

The agency headed by Dr. Unique Morris-Hughes has weathered a tumultuous past 19 months, starting in April 2020 when they were caught with an outdated system at a time when the city needed it to work most. Some claimants waited weeks on end for their benefits to kick in and encountered clogged call centers.

There were periods when claimants didn’t receive their weekly disbursements because the system struggled with how to handle out-of-state wages. They waited again whenever there was a federal update to unemployment benefits, and there were ongoing problems with communications and transparency. Eventually, D.C.’s Office of the Inspector General decided to investigate the agency’s handling unemployment services.

“From a good governance standpoint, it’s just crazy to me that DOES stiffed Mr. Chisolm on his overtime pay,” Zelikovitz says. “At the start of an economic crisis, he’s probably the one guy you want to make sure is getting paid properly.”

“There are dedicated employees at DOES who work hard everyday to serve our customers particularly in their time of employment uncertainty,” Chisolm adds. “The staff at DOES  face challenges daily in meeting this goal due to issues beyond their control. It is gut wrenching to know that those who are there to serve our most vulnerable citizens, are not paid properly when due.”

Representatives from DOES did not comment on City Paper’s questions about the allegations in the lawsuit by press time.

This story has been updated to include new comments from Chisolm.