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More than 13,000 District unemployment claimants missed payments this spring

Unique Morris-Hughes, director of the D.C. Department of Employment Services.
Unique Morris-Hughes, director of the D.C. Department of Employment Services. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

More than 13,000 D.C. unemployment claimants did not receive their expected payments this spring as the city was adjusting to a change in federal benefits, a previously unreported number that further illustrates problems plaguing the Department of Employment Services.

At a contentious D.C. Council roundtable Wednesday, DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes acknowledged that about 1 in 5 people who believed they should be getting unemployment benefits saw those payments interrupted beginning in March.

Several lawmakers decried systematic issues with the benefits process, including a call center that they say often presents laid-off workers with incorrect or conflicting information.

“DOES does not know how to give clear information to claimants, does not have a modern and capable call center system,” said council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large). “This is a human problem, not an IT problem.”

The agency has reported numerous interruptions to benefits this year, most recently when it updated the system to implement the American Rescue Plan Act, which extended several federal unemployment programs until September.

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Morris-Hughes previously said that about 2,500 unemployment recipients had reached the end of their yearly benefits in March and may have faced interruptions. But DOES did not say how many recipients were affected overall.

On Wednesday, Morris-Hughes said that group was among 13,154 unemployment claimants who expected to be getting benefits but did not receive them. It was not immediately clear how many of these cases have been resolved, though dozens of unemployment recipients testified before the council last week about lingering lapses in payments.

DOES has said many claims are being evaluated for eligibility. Morris-Hughes said benefits can be interrupted for a range of reasons: changes in earnings, a failure to submit weekly certifications, or people having returned to work or exhausted their benefits.

Morris-Hughes told lawmakers that more than 49,000 unemployment claimants did not experience interruptions in March — a figure that was not reassuring to Silverman, who chairs the council’s labor committee.

“One out of 5 people did not get paid because of some reason, that’s 21 percent . . . that’s significant, director,” Silverman said. “I hear you saying there was a range of issues, but it’s large.”

Morris-Hughes replied: “I would say 4 out of 5 is significant in terms of — paid with no issue on time.”

Members of the council spent five hours questioning Morris-Hughes; many expressed frustration that the vendors contracting with DOES did not show up to testify despite council requests.

“We have a responsibility as public servants to match the scale of the crisis and reflect the urgency that so many of our residents are feeling,” said council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4). “It does not cut it to say: ‘It is what it is. It’s a 30-year-old system.’ It’s not acceptable to leave claims unresolved for months.”

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On Point Technology, which operates the DOES website and has been a contractor with the agency for more than two decades, declined to attend, Silverman said. The companies Codice and Capitol Bridge, which work with the call center, submitted written testimony but did not attend the hearing.

Asked whether call center staff are evaluated based on the accuracy of information they provide, Morris-Hughes said that they are graded on other measures but that accuracy is “not a requirement of their contract.” She said Codice and Capitol Bridge have met expectations.

But Silverman retorted that “our call center needs an overhaul,” noting that some people have been given inaccurate information about how to resolve claims, which in the end makes it harder to fix the problem.

Morris-Hughes defended the call-takers’ performances, saying that her agency rolled out seven new federal unemployment programs during the pandemic with little guidance from the Labor Department on how to implement them.

“The core issue here is the changing guidance that comes from the Department of Labor. Not a single person on this Zoom meeting can tell anyone with certainty all the requirements that we are required to implement,” she said. “Can you imagine a call-taker who is entry level, learning all of these things and memorizing them?”

The tense roundtable came more than one week after the D.C. Office of the Inspector General announced plans to audit the agency’s ability to process claims.

Asked about the investigation at a news conference Monday, D.C. Mayor E. Bowser (D) said that the inspector general does audits “all the time” and that she would support the probe as long as it didn’t take DOES staff away from their work.

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

DOES has long vowed to modernize the unemployment system, but the project has faced numerous delays.

Morris-Hughes said DOES expects to award a contract for rebuilding the system to a new vendor once the council approves the terms. She said she believes the updated system could debut in 18 months.

“We obviously have a long-term issue with our IT system,” Silverman said. “We can’t go through another recession with this archaic dinosaur system we currently have.”

Stalled payments, conflicting answers: D.C. unemployment woes trigger investigation