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I got the “invitation” on a bad day. I’d just gotten another job rejection letter, and now D.C.’s Department of Employment Services was summoning me to mandatory reemployment training. Attend or risk losing your benefits, the email said.
I was laid off in January, and it stung. So many other tech workers have been let go this year—more than 120,000 in the first quarter of 2023, according to TechCrunch’s layoff tracker—that the gut punch didn’t feel as personal as it could have. But getting strong-armed into attending a government training on the basics of getting a job felt much more embarrassing, like I failed adulthood and needed remedial lessons.
Funded by the Department of Labor, the Reemployment Services and Eligibility Assessment program, or RESEA, is supposed to help people find new work before their 26 weeks of unemployment benefits run out. My “invitation” said I was randomly selected to participate, but I later learned that all D.C. workers receiving these benefits must attend the program.
On one hand, I believe that such programs should exist. Local governments can do more to support workers, and benefits programs shouldn’t be easy to scam. On the other hand, I couldn’t imagine that this one-day orientation could actually help me find a job in my industry—especially one put on by the beleaguered DOES.
In 2020, unemployment claims increased five times year over year, creating a frustrating, though perhaps understandable, backlog at the agency as the country responded to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. But two years later, DOES patrons were still reporting the same issues: poor communication, failing technology, long wait times, and delays receiving payments.
Even the D.C. Council appeared to agree. At-Large Councilmembers Robert White and Elissa Silverman hosted a joint roundtable in May 2021 to hear residents’ experiences. “People are just desperate,” Silverman told WTOP at the time. White added, “When people have to get in touch with elected officials in order for the system to work, that is a sign that the system is broken.”
The same month, the D.C. inspector general announced he would audit DOES for poor customer service and technical problems. The report published in late March of this year commended “DOES’s response to the unprecedented nature of the pandemic by having comprehensive and detailed policies, procedures, and timelines” for processing unemployment benefits claims. But it also found that DOES failed to consistently process and pay benefits, failed to consistently keep required notes on claimants’ cases, failed to consistently monitor claims, and failed to track or analyze issues with its technical infrastructure.
DOES employees, in addition to its customers, have raised allegations against the agency. In October 2021, a former employee sued DOES for allegedly failing to fully pay hundreds of overtime hours; two additional plaintiffs later joined the lawsuit. The agency was sued again in January 2022, this time by the Legal Aid Society of D.C., for allegedly cutting off or denying benefits without notice. (DOES also made the Final Four last year in City Paper’s March Madness-style bracket for worst D.C. agency; it narrowly lost to the Metropolitan Police Department, which won the championship.)
My own experience, however, has been relatively and unexpectedly smooth. The claims portal is clunky, and I have spent hours on hold trying to resolve basic technical problems and submitting the required weekly claim online. But every person I’ve talked to has been genuinely helpful. They promise to resolve the issue and actually follow through, though I should note that an unemployed friend of mine has had the opposite experience. His claim was stuck in DOES purgatory for months. According to the inspector general’s audit, DOES completed only 43.4 percent of baseline eligibility determinations within its 21-day goal. After calling, emailing, and visiting the office in person, my friend finally started receiving benefits recently. He tells me that he knows he should feel relieved, but instead he just feels weary.
The RESEA session started at 9 a.m., and I was running late. The email specifically warned that latecomers (anyone “not checked in before 9:00 AM and or not seated by 9:15 AM”) could lose their benefits. But getting to the South Dakota Avenue NE office isn’t easy from my neighborhood in Northwest. I hustled into the office 20 minutes late.
The DOES system can feel so fragile—hit one wrong button on the temperamental online portal, and you’re locked out—and my brain was applying that logic to everything associated with DOES. My tardiness didn’t seem to matter, though. I joined a line of people, masked and 6 feet apart, waiting to check in. A security guard brought me a chair so I could sit while I waited.
In the classroom, I joined about 20 other claimants who were already seated. Some thumbed through their phones and others filled out more forms on old desktop computers. The instructor cheerily asked us to introduce ourselves and share our desired industry so she could tailor her presentation.
One person worked in public relations; another worked in hospitality. I said that I worked in marketing, and the man sitting next to me said he planned to get a job at Nats Park when baseball season started again. A guy in a Canada Goose jacket said IT. And one woman admitted that she wasn’t really looking for work. I didn’t hear anyone mention health care or education.
Then the program began—the part I’d been dreading most. The email said I’d receive “information on tools and resources available to enhance and support your job search and information about additional reemployment.” Nothing felt more vague or less relevant to me. I envisioned hours of lectures with information that didn’t apply to me or my field. I also didn’t expect that the city government could help navigate the cutthroat tech world that runs on networks and ego. Most of all, I didn’t want more reminders that I didn’t have a job.
But I was wrong. RESEA was efficient, helpful, and even dignifying—at least for me. Where I expected the tips to be 20 years out of date, there was a whole section about “beating applicant tracking systems,” a more modern technology that many companies use to sort through resumes. Sometimes, though, the software ends up filtering out qualified applicants simply because their resumes don’t include the right keywords. We also got advice on preparing for video interviews. Some tips were obvious (“dress professionally”); others were less so (“call a friend ahead of time to check your lighting and background”).
“Has anyone ever been asked to stand up during a video interview?” the instructor asked. She explained that sometimes recruiters do this to check that interviewees are dressed professionally from head to toe, and that, as job candidates, we have to work within an unfair system (and endure unreasonable, ableist requests).
The whole session felt remarkably pro-applicant and skeptical of “The System” that’s keeping workers down. The program acknowledges that finding work is tough, and assumes that none of us who want work are unemployed for lack of trying.
The presentation was mercifully short—no more than 20 minutes. Then the instructor brought us up for individual conversations. She called my name first, perhaps because I’d been among the last to arrive, and my file was on top of the pile. She looked through my papers and asked about the kind of work I wanted. She asked if I had had any interviews, and I said that I had. “And you’re just waiting on the offer,” she finished, modeling confidence.
After months of interviews and applications, of constantly explaining why I lost my job and getting ghosted by recruiters, of listening to one hiring manager spell out the six reasons I wasn’t right for his job and asking why I had applied, this woman’s assurance brought tears to my eyes.
It’s impossible to know which parts of my experience with RESEA and with DOES overall have been lucky breaks and which have been due to my privilege. Was my name called first for the one-on-one session because my file was on top or because the instructor chose to specifically call me? Even if the former is true, it’s only because I was 20 minutes late and thankfully didn’t get kicked out. Would I have received this grace if I hadn’t been a young, White, American woman? Would the orientation have taken more of my day if I had previous gaps in employment, a disability, a criminal history, undocumented status, or unreliable transportation? I certainly would have been there longer if I didn’t have computer and internet access to fill out my paperwork ahead of time. By 11:45 a.m., I was free to go.
I made straight for the door, forgetting to put on my coat despite the strong wind that day. The security guard laughed and said, “I was about to say, you might need that,” as I paused and pulled on my puffer. “Yes,” I said. “It’s brutal out there.”
Six weeks later, I’m still searching for full-time work, but I have pieced together enough part-time gigs to price me out of benefits most weeks. (Each week, claimants report their wages, and DOES subtracts them from your set weekly claim amount; if your benefit is $300, but you make $250 in a given week, you’ll only receive $50.)
Despite a relatively painless journey through the RESEA program, I’ve still gotten some of the classic DOES experience. My claim has gotten tied up in DOES’ system, and I haven’t received benefits since the orientation—well past the promised 21-day turnaround for resolving the issue.
The good news is no one else depends on my income, my skills transfer easily to contract work, and I have savings to fall back on. I have the privileges associated with being White, educated, and not living with a disability. In a city where the cost of living is 53 percent higher than the national average, I am likely one of the few who can afford to wait.