The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

The D.C. Department of Employment Services building. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

More than 14 months after pandemic-related layoffs first strained the District’s unemployment system, the frustrated calls are still coming.

D.C. lawmakers say their offices are flooded each day with desperate messages from workers who have experienced lapses in unemployment benefits — and know that reaching out beyond the city’s employment office may be the fastest way to get the problem fixed.

The D.C. Department of Employment Services has attributed problems to a range of sources: its antiquated website, an unprecedented volume of new claims and, in February, a glitch it said was caused by a vendor. The latest issue — apparently spurred by updates necessary to extend federal unemployment programs created during the pandemic — halted payments for a still-unknown number of claimants in March.

DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes told reporters last month that those who had missed weeks of payments because of the latest system update would be made whole by late April, but many residents say they are still awaiting funds.

“The unemployment insurance system is something we have to get a handle on — at very least, need more clarity or transparency on what is happening,” D.C. Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) said Wednesday at a roundtable, where dozens of people shared stories of unpaid benefits, lackluster communication and mixed messages. “Because people’s lives are really hanging in the balance.”

The Office of the Inspector General has announced plans to audit the employment agency’s ability to process claims, and Morris-Hughes is expected to testify before the council this Wednesday.

Experts say the problems in the District also are occurring in states across the nation, exacerbating the effect of the pandemic on those who lost their streams of income because of it.

Michel Benaroch, a professor of management information systems at Syracuse University, said he has been “amazed” by complications affecting unemployment systems, many of which are decades old. D.C. needs to modernize its outdated system to prevent future problems, he said — but that’s not something that can be done overnight.

“When you introduce another federal program, no one says, ‘Let’s see how it’ll work with this state or that state.’ They just launch it,” Benaroch said. “You know something is broken down — you’re trying to fix the engine while the car is driving — and it’s almost impossible.”

'Like . . . pulling your tooth'

The problems began two months ago for Ogbaldet Tecle, a 60-year-old concierge who was laid off from a D.C. hotel at the onset of the pandemic. When he first applied for unemployment, he had a mostly smooth experience.

But, like for thousands of others, that changed in March. He tried to file his weekly claim and got a message that his benefits had expired. The notice instructed him to file another claim to remedy the issue, so he did. That inadvertently linked multiple unemployment claims to his account.

D.C. businesses say virus restrictions still hamper recovery

Tecle grew more confused when a DOES representative suggested he should not have filed the new claim. After talking with multiple agents, Tecle says he now has several inquiries open into his account — and zero answers.

He also hasn’t received his benefits in more than seven weeks, despite a promise that his situation would be resolved in 21 days.

“I talked to six people who gave me six different pieces of information. It’s like a dentist pulling your tooth,” he said. “I have credit card bills. I have a kid in college. . . . I’m asking my family to pitch in to help with my expenses.”

Tecle’s situation isn’t unique. DOES announced in March that the agency needed to undergo an extensive system update to implement the federal American Rescue Plan Act, which extended several unemployment benefit programs until September. In April, Morris-Hughes estimated that some 2,500 D.C. unemployment recipients had reached the end of their yearly benefits and that an unknown percentage of them may have experienced gaps in payments for several weeks.

Morris-Hughes told reporters that all updates were completed by April 19 and that anyone who didn’t get paid that week had a separate issue unrelated to the extension — possibly because they made additional wages or failed to submit a weekly certification.

In a statement Friday, the agency said traditional unemployment insurance recipients who have received benefits for more than a year are required to submit a new application, which generally takes up to 21 days for the agency to verify.

“The District of Columbia is required to review and maintain eligibility of claimants receiving benefits, helping to prevent fraud and abuse,” the statement said. “[D.C.] works to pay all eligible claimants their maximum eligible benefit in an efficient manner. There are many factors that could impact that amount and are entirely dependent on an individual’s unique situation.”

Inside the housing showdown in Ivy City, where kids have no place to play

But such assertions have raised skepticism among members of the council, as well as unemployment recipients, who say they’ve followed instructions, waited more than 21 days and still have not gotten payments.

“DOES tells me and other council offices that people not receiving benefits have unreported income or changes to their circumstances,” White said at the hearing. “But that doesn’t seem to be the full story, given the vast number of people who can’t access benefits or who are facing interruptions.”

DOES did not answer questions from The Washington Post about how many claimants were affected by the latest interruption. The agency’s statement urged residents to certify their benefits weekly and check their emails, including spam, for communications.

“All eligible benefits claimed will be paid,” the statement said.

Nationwide challenges

Experts who examine unemployment systems said most jurisdictions had difficulty keeping up with a spike in applications while implementing new federal programs that granted unemployment benefits to thousands of people who were not traditionally eligible, including the self-employed.

In April, New Jersey claimed to be the only state to automate its year-end benefit review and refiling of claims, a process the state said otherwise “could have taken up to three months” to complete.

Gary Burtless, an economist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, monitors how well states comply with a federal standard that allows 21 days to deliver first payments to new applicants.

Just 42 percent of new D.C. unemployment claimants received benefits within 21 days in March, according to Burtless — in comparison with 67 percent for the nation overall. Virginia’s rate was 77 percent, and Maryland delivered just 30 percent of initial payments within three weeks. State lawmakers in Maryland say they, too, have been flooded with complaints from desperate constituents.

Marylanders are still calling about stalled benefits. And no one is answering.

“D.C. has fared worse than the nation as a whole, but in recent months, Maryland has done an even worse job,” Burtless said. “There are a lot of mysteries of why there’s not regular updating of systems to make them current with best practices.”

Benaroch, of Syracuse, cited extreme variation in how jurisdictions handle the problems that arise. For example: Nearly all state-level employment agencies experienced historic levels of calls from concerned claimants this past year, he said, but many failed to sufficiently increase staffing in their call centers.

And sometimes, the people answering the calls aren’t fully educated on the many problems that claimants are experiencing, making the situation worse.

“It’s one thing for a system to have a glitch. How you manage the glitch is another thing,” he said. “Manage the crisis, communicate to users and explain what’s ahead. Sometimes people don’t mind a delay if you tell them how long it will be.”

Anything for a response

Many frustrated D.C. claimants are turning to the council — or to news organizations — seeking help with their claims.

At Wednesday’s hearing, council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), who chairs the labor committee, said agency officials tend to watch the roundtables, “and often, as we’ve seen, you do get a resolution when you testify.”

White made a similar observation. “We should not have a system that relies on escalation by government official,” he said.

D.C.’s lost year: How the pandemic upended lives and businesses

Such was the case for Mitchell Polman, a Mount Pleasant resident whose Pandemic Unemployment Assistance payments were interrupted in March. He told The Post at the time that he received conflicting information about whether he needed to file a new claim to extend his benefits, even though DOES has said that PUA recipients are not required to do so.

On Wednesday, Polman testified about a new issue: His payments had resumed — but he was still owed for several weeks.

“The minute I got off of Councilwoman Silverman’s roundtable today I got a call from DOES, [they] figured out what my problem was and it was absurdly simple,” Polman wrote in an email. “I should receive the payment on Friday. I can’t help but wonder how many other people are tearing their hair out over this.”

Others haven’t been as lucky. Alex Mudd, a former chef, stopped receiving benefits the first week of April. He has now exhausted his savings, and various agents at the DOES call center have given him different explanations for the problem. Mudd says he was promised more than three weeks ago that the issue would be resolved and was told that he should “just keep filing” his weekly paperwork.

The delay has prevented him from paying his portion of the rent and utilities in a home he shares with his siblings. He recently lost his wallet and can’t afford to buy a new identification card, either.

“You’re telling people everything is a continuation of the last [federal] program — that it’s supposed to be so easy — and it hasn’t been,” Mudd said. “Every time you get a system update, you don’t prepare your system for it, and thousands of people are suffering.”

Nine months into the pandemic, a $1,200 relief check goes only so far

D.C. opens walk-up coronavirus vaccine clinics to older teens

How the pandemic and a broken unemployment system are upending people’s lives