Please Note

The Washington Post is providing this important information about the coronavirus for free. For more free coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, sign up for our daily Coronavirus Updates newsletter where all stories are free to read.

Long before the coronavirus began to decimate the local economy, the D.C. Department of Employment Services promised a modern, user-friendly portal for submitting unemployment claims.

The agency told the federal government and the D.C. Council that the project could be finished as early as 2018. Then they said the winter of 2019, and later July 2019, according to documents reviewed by The Washington Post.

The city missed all those marks despite spending about $9 million.

Now D.C. workers facing record layoffs because of the coronavirus shutdown must rely on a website built in the early 2000s that does not work on mobile phones and was ill-equipped to handle the huge surge in cases. Workers filed nearly 44,000 unemployment claims in the last month, compared with 27,000 in all of 2019.

Because the online claim-filing system relies on programming language dating to the 1950s, it took more than two weeks for developers to remove a question about applicants’ efforts to find other jobs, even after officials waived that requirement.

City officials urged workers unable to access the website, and those without laptops or desktop computers, to instead call the unemployment office, where they faced waits of up to six hours. The debacle exacerbated growing anxiety among workers struggling to make ends meet.

Brittany Sullivan said she tried to log in to the unemployment website 20 times and tried to file a claim over the phone. After several attempts, and five hours waiting on the line, the 29-year-old reached a person and prevailed.

“Beyond just being unemployed, you’re concerned that if you don’t get this application through quickly, you’re going to be without any funds, potentially indefinitely,” said Sullivan, who was furloughed from her job at the mobile phone pouch maker Yondr.

Unique Morris-Hughes, the director of the D.C. Department of Employment Services, said technical challenges in overhauling the portal contributed to the delays.

“The system is very antiquated and very complex,” Morris-Hughes said. “I’ve seen anywhere between a million-plus different code changes required to modernize and enhance the system.”

Those responsible for the D.C. site note that other unemployment offices across the country also have outdated websites and, in many cases, are struggling under a crush of claims. Long call times are not unusual.

“All first-line citizen support systems across the country . . . are struggling with this tsunami,” said Mike Lorsbach, the founder and acting chief executive of On Point Technology, the contractor responsible for the District’s unemployment website. “We have anecdotal information that new or old, systems are proving incapable of processing the highest transaction load in the history of the UI program.”

But the District has no way to quickly fix its website, according to the contractor and city officials, and the agency is additionally hampered because some of its workers have not been reporting to the office. Records show the government repeatedly missed internal deadlines that could have better prepared the city for the worst unemployment crisis in modern history.

During a March 25 news conference, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said the state of the unemployment website was not acceptable.

“It needs to be updated,” Bowser said. “It’s been funded and planned. Unfortunately, this pandemic happened before this new system has been in place.”

The first infusion of federal funds to modernize the system came in 2012, in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

But the city did not start spending money on the project until 2016, according to budget documents.

In the spring of 2018, Morris-Hughes said the new unemployment benefits system could be finished by the end of next year.

“We are on track,” the agency director testified. “Right now there is no need for concern or worry.”

By February 2019, the agency said a new website would go live in July that could work on phones and make “accessing benefits easier.”

Two months later, Morris-Hughes said the city would miss that deadline.

“The progress on the benefits development work has slowed down a little bit,” she testified at an oversight hearing.

This February — when the coronavirus had reached the United States but before cases were confirmed in the capital region — the unemployment office said the project would start in spring 2020 and finish in 2022.

The covid-19 crisis threatens to delay that further.

“There have been shifting timelines, changing budgets, a lack of a detailed spending plan, and contradictory information is given every time we ask about it,” said Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), who oversees the employment agency. “We are spending a lot of money maintaining an archaic outdated system.”

Morris-Hughes declined to answer questions about whether her agency could have done anything differently in its handling of the modernization project.

Lorsbach, the contractor, said his company had built a modernized portal to file claims that was tested and ready to go.

But he said former managers at the Department of Employment Services — before Morris-Hughes took the job in 2018 — decided to halt the “custom build” claims portal while looking to other states for ways to completely overhaul the system.

City officials have urged residents to use Internet Explorer — a browser discontinued in 2016, but still maintained — to access the portal on laptops and desktop computers. But many of the city’s poorest residents rely on their phones for Internet access, especially with public libraries, where they could use computers, all closed.

Wayne McFadden, a 64-year-old disabled veteran, said he has been struggling to figure out how to file a claim. His laptop is busted, and the veterans services office with computers is closed, as is the unemployment office.

While walking around Northeast Washington last week, he happened upon Bowser holding a news conference and asked her what people like him should do. She told him to call the hotline, where he had to wait hours for assistance.

“I’m not mad at anybody, but just show me how the game is played, and I’ll play the game,” said McFadden, who usually works temporary jobs in construction and software testing.

The city has dealt with mass confusion among applicants unsure how to handle standard questions that no longer make sense because of the pandemic, including queries on whether they are searching for new work. There are also references to a seven-day waiting period before receiving benefits. Both of those requirements were scrapped under an emergency law that took effect March 17 but won’t be removed from the website until Friday.

Euan McLaughlin, an assistant general manager at St. Anselm, a restaurant near Union Market in Northeast, said applicants had no idea how to answer the questions on the weekly report about their job search.

“There are a lot of panicked people out there,” said McLaughlin, who was still waiting for his money on Thursday.

“I have a degree of money cushion, but it’s starting to go down. And this unemployment benefit, as small as it is, is money that I can use for groceries and bills, so that as my savings dwindle away due to the crisis, I can still keep my head above water,” he said.

The city contracted with a call center to process claims filed by phone and is in the middle of negotiating another contract. The employment services agency is also looking to pilot a program that would allow claims-takers to work remotely, which could address the issue of workers not coming into the office.

Morris-Hughes said she is sympathetic to the complaints from District residents.

“We have people working every single day around the clock to help District residents and if they can just exercise a little grace and patience with us, that would be great,” she said. “Have confidence in us.”