Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Sign up for our free newsletter

Sponsored
Enjoy Winter Restaurant Week YOUR WAY with dining options for all comfort levels including indoor, outdoor, take-out & delivery options. RWDMV.com

One of the District’s worst-performing players during the pandemic, the Department of Employment Services, was in the spotlight at a Council hearing a week after four D.C. workers accused the agency in a lawsuit of denying or withholding unemployment benefits without any explanation. Yesterday, other workers testified about their own sagas with the department at a Committee on Labor and Workforce Development public hearing led by At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman. 

The legislative action at play: the Constituent Unemployment Compensation Information Amendment Act of 2021. Introduced by Silverman in early December, the bill would require DOES to swiftly disclose unemployment insurance claim information to the Council when requests meet certain conditions. If passed, the amendment would solidify previous emergency legislation aimed at aiding D.C. residents struggling to get UI benefits and communications. Otherwise, having to complete consent forms to get councilmembers’ assistance on unemployment benefits—something DOES is now requiring—might prove too onerous for UI claimants already encountering issues with DOES.

“It definitely would have discouraged many people from getting the help that they needed,” said Venorica “Vee” Tucker, a member and leader of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of DC. “[Getting] forms filled out, they’ve done that so many times and got no results.” 

First, Some Context …

Individuals have reported issues with DOES throughout the pandemic: inaccurate or conflicting information along with communication delays, technical glitches, a delayed upgrade of its antiquated website, and otherwise unexplained holdups with unemployment payments. Back in September, Ward 1 resident Gideon Sandford, who received traditional UI benefits, explained the main issue he and other workers have experienced with the DOES communication system throughout the pandemic: Call center workers aren’t DOES employees, so they generally can’t do anything that D.C. workers can’t do on their own UI portals. As City Paper has reported, non-DOES call takers, unlike the adjudicators and call examiners they outnumber, can’t resolve claim issues, and aren’t contractually obligated to give accurate or consistent information. Claimants are often left in the dark about why they suddenly stopped receiving benefits or how they can get help. 

For claimants like Sandford, the only thing that has worked since the start of the pandemic has been reaching out to councilmembers’ offices and having their constituent services representative accelerate the issue to DOES. Based on testimony residents shared yesterday, little has changed for claimants since the fall. 

DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes has claimed such actions have contributed to backlogs. But delays have been an issue long before Silverman and others got involved to resolve said delays. Moreover, at Council meetings last spring, Morris-Hughes took issue with councilmembers sharing their own information on unemployment. But Silverman, At-Large Councilmember Robert White, At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson, and Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George said they never received DOES information in layperson’s terms, wondering aloud how residents were expected to navigate the UI system if they basically had to be experts to do so. 

The Consent Forms Issue

Fast-forward to August 2021, when a new issue compounded the information gap. DOES started limiting information they would share with the Council. The agency told councilmembers they would need constituents to sign consent forms in order for Council staff to discuss their unemployment benefits, Silverman explained at yesterday’s hearing. But, as she pointed out, Department of Labor law specifically exempts constituent service requests from the strictest protections around claimant confidentiality. Councilmembers have received thousands of such requests from constituents asking for help with UI benefit claims cases. 

The Constituent Unemployment Compensation Information Amendment Act of 2021 would enable constituent services workers to give status updates to any residents who request it without additional paperwork. The bill incorporates feedback her office received from DOES after the initial emergency bill and is an attempt at interoffice collaboration, Silverman said.  

The Value of a Helping (Council) Hand

Enabling further constituent support is a lifeline for UI claimants. This is particularly true for claimants who have worked in D.C. as well as Maryland or Virginia; they face additional confusion and hurdles in the UI process. Ward 6 resident Howard Templeman, a banquet waiter and one of the public witnesses at the hearing, is one of them. As a seasonal worker, he deals with unemployment regularly and says he only started experiencing problems with UI during the pandemic because of the influx of new claimants. He was working in D.C. full time serving a congressman and part time at FedEx Field with the Washington Football Team. Since he still had money coming in from his D.C. job, he experienced issues getting UI from his Maryland job.  

“You know, it’s stressful, when your bills keep coming,” Templeman said. “Bills don’t get sick, they stay healthy.” He lauded Pat Joseph, Silverman’s director of constituent services, as “a godsend” for connecting him to a responsive DOES employee and guiding him through the UI holdup so he could finally pay his bills.   

Another public witness, lifelong banquet and table server Yemesrach Wodneh, echoed Templeman’s praise for Joseph, particularly for her help with claimants with language barriers. Wodneh said her friends waited weeks and weeks for unemployment checks before getting support. 

“We love Washington, so it needs to love us back,” she said. 

Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

  • To see today’s COVID-19 data, visit our coronavirus tracker.
  • Friendly reminder: Starting tomorrow, Jan. 15, D.C. residents 12 and older will need to show proof of at least one shot of the COVID vaccine to dine indoors and participate in other indoor activities. [WCP, Post
  • Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a new initiative through nonprofit Martha’s Table to give cash assistance to new and expectant mothers in wards 5, 7, and 8. [WUSA9]
  • A voting rights march and annual peace walk will take place at the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge on MLK Jr. Day. [Post
  • The National Weather Service issued a winter storm watch for Sunday in the D.C. area. [WTOP]

By Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

  • Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White has ducked an interview with the Washington Informer about his mayoral run. [Informer]
  • D.C. lawyer A. Scott Bolden is representing Baltimore prosecutor Marilyn Mosby, who was indicted yesterday for allegedly making false statements on mortgage loan applications. [Maryland Matters, NYT]
  • D.C. Council will begin the redistricting process for advisory neighborhood commissions. [Hill Rag]
  • D.C. to receive millions from the feds to remove lead pipes. It won’t be enough. [DC Line]

By Mitch Ryals (tips? mryals@washingtoncitypaper.com)

Credit: Courtesy of Cielo Rojo

Cielo Rojo is Growing and Spinning Off a San Fran-Style Burrito Shop

The founders of Cielo Rojo are planning a two-pronged expansion. The popular Takoma Park Mexican […]

  • Empty shelves persist at local grocery stores. [Washingtonian]
  • The pandemic has robbed us of the simple pleasure of eavesdropping in restaurants. [Eater]
  • Critic Tom Sietsema revisits Convivial in Shaw. [Post]

By Laura Hayes (tips? lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com)

City Lights: James Van Der Zee’s Mastery at the National Gallery of Art

James Van Der Zee was the photographic chronicler of Harlem as it was becoming the […]

Scream: Take Five

At one point during Scream, the fifth entry in the slasher horror series, someone enumerates […]

  • Don’t worry! Alexander Calder’s iconic mobile will return to the National Gallery of Art—after renovations are done. The East Building will close from Feb. 28 until June to quickly replace its atrium skylight. [DCist]
  • The union representing security and maintenance staff at the Smithsonian has requested the institution close all its public venues until this current COVID surge is under control—for the safety of staff, the public, and the art. [Post]
  • Reminder: The Philips Collection’s Alma W. Thomas: Everything is Beautiful exhibit closes Jan. 23. The gallery remains open for ticket holders and members; virtual options are also available. [Informer]

By Sarah Marloff (tips? smarloff@washingtoncitypaper.com)

  • Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr. has entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols and will not be available to coach tomorrow’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers. Assistant coach Pat Delany will be the acting head coach. [NBC Sports Washington]
  • Alex Ovechkin returned this morning to the ice after missing practice on Thursday, his second in a row, because of an upper-body injury. [Russian Machine Never Breaks]
  • Los Angeles Lakers, Sparks, and Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly has reportedly withdrawn from negotiations to purchase a controlling interest in the Washington Spirit. [Athletic]

By Kelyn Soong (tips? ksoong@washingtoncitypaper.com)

Sign up: To get District Line Daily—or any of our other email newsletters—sent straight to your mailbox, click here. Send tips, ideas, and comments to newsletter@washingtoncitypaper.com.