And ever since Kimberly Phillips’s family dropped from two incomes to one, the Olney resident has been negotiating with the water company to avoid a shut-off.
The Maryland residents — who never envisioned filing for unemployment and never had to until this year — are among tens of thousands of jobless residents in their state and D.C. whose benefits are tangled in red tape.
They have made endless phone calls and sent volumes of emails that have largely gone unanswered, and they find themselves in an anxiety-ridden waiting game with overwhelmed government bureaucracies.
“It’s a gut-wrenching time,” said Duncan, who received money for several weeks and then watched his benefits stop for a still-unexplained reason. “As an attorney for some 50 years, I’m used to being the squeaky wheel when I need to be, but it’s not even possible in this kind of circumstance.”
Eight months into the pandemic, residents across the region whose claims are delayed or denied often have no way of finding out what information they need to supply, advocates say. Instead, they wait for checks or electronic deposits that never come.
Claimants in D.C. who use up their initial 26 weeks of unemployment checks are eligible for extensions under pandemic rules, officials say. But the city doesn’t inform them that they need to apply for that benefit to keep getting checks, though a department spokeswoman said claimants can learn that information from newsletters and social media.
Some people’s benefits have been abruptly cut off because a system malfunction contends, erroneously, that they are earning income in another state, said D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), chair of the council’s labor committee.
Silverman said that many independent contractors and gig workers, newly eligible for unemployment during the pandemic, are getting $179 per week because the city has not processed their proof that they are entitled to much more.
“Right now it’s a big black hole to a lot of people,” said Silverman, who has pushed the Department of Employment Services (DOES) to improve its system. “They have no idea why they’re not processing their claim or why their payments have stopped. And they’re on hold for hours.”
With similar complaints continuing in Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) on Thursday announced $15 million in federal aid to increase support staff at the Maryland Division of Unemployment Insurance, including additional employees to answer calls and adjudicate claims.
The money will also pay to improve the agency’s customer service management software.
“There are things that the state Department of Labor could have done six months ago, and things that they could do now,” said Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery), whose office has been inundated with calls from jobless constituents. Charkoudian said those changes are as small as simplifying the language on the online system and as big as requiring the state agency to tell a claimant when action will be taken on their application.
“If you are in a process that requires adjudication, you have no idea if it will take two weeks or two months,” she said. “At this point, there is no way to find that out.”
Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier (D-Baltimore County) said her office was receiving about 25 calls a week earlier this year from jobless residents waiting for their benefits. Recently, the calls have slowed slightly, to about 20 a week.
“People are very anxious,” she said. “And it’s just so frustrating because people think the legislature can fix the problem, and we can’t. It’s just terrible.”
In the first three months of the pandemic, Maryland fielded double the number of claims it had in all of 2019. And, like many states across the country, it wasn’t ready for the surge. Maryland was in the process of upgrading its filing system, which created chaos and caused delays.
Since then, state officials say that 80 percent of those who applied for benefits are receiving them. About 15 percent of applicants were denied because they didn’t meet program requirements.
Gary Burtless, an economist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Maryland “is doing a little worse than average” in meeting a federal standard that measures how promptly states make their first payment to a jobless applicant.
Under the federal standard, 87 percent of applicants should receive their first payment within 14 to 21 days after applying. Since the pandemic, he said, the national average is at 65 percent.
In Maryland, 61 percent of applicants received their first benefit in that time frame, according to Burtless, who reviewed federal labor statistics. Others states have fared much worse, including New York at 51.8 percent and Florida at 34.8 percent. The District is at 55 percent, he said.
D.C. claimant Joe Gizinski, who worked as a stagehand at the Kennedy Center and other venues before the pandemic brought an end to live performances, said it took weeks to get through the jammed online system to apply. He said he filed in June, got approved and even got the debit card that his D.C. benefits are supposed to be deposited to. But no money arrived.
When his savings ran out, Gizinski, 43, reluctantly asked his parents for money. “Since I moved out of the house when I was 18, I’ve never asked for anything,” he said. But he keeps calling and calling, and no one at DOES has been able to explain to him why his payments aren’t there.
Silverman said people who have worked in both the District and Maryland, like Gizinski, have had trouble getting benefits. Claimants often don’t understand what the problem is. For example, out-of-state wages might show up as simply “Code 55,” she said. “There’s nowhere that there’s an explanation of what the code means.”
Diane Watkins, a spokeswoman for the Department of Employment Services, said that claims examiners are supposed to email applicants to explain what information is needed.
As of last week, the average hold time for people who call the agency was 52 minutes, Watkins said. Some callers were on hold for more than two hours.
Nicole Dooley, an attorney with D.C.’s Legal Aid Society, said DOES could be doing a better job communicating with claimants.
“Lots of people say, ‘I applied several months ago and nothing has happened,’ ” Dooley said. “They call, and the phone systems are backed up. Most of the time there is something holding those claims up, but the claimants just don’t know what it is. . . . If the online system worked, it would be much easier.”
In Maryland, McNeill, Duncan and Phillips are among the 5 percent of applicants with pending claims. They have waited for hours on an automated phone system to speak to an agent, only to be disconnected.
“It’s frustrating,” said McNeill, 45, who thinks that she is owed about $10,000. “I’m left to wonder: Is there a true gap in their efficiency, or is this just a method to not have to pay out unemployment?”
McNeill, who lives in Catonsville, said she has sold much of her stocks and depleted a savings account she planned to use to buy a house. She is now living off the money in her checking account.
“If I had no savings and wasn’t living with my family, I would be destitute,” she said.
And she knows other people are in worse financial shape. “My heart breaks for them,” she said.
When she lost her position in July, she said, she had a difficult conversation with her life partner and his sister, whom she lives with, about her lack of income.
“They’ve done what they can to be supportive and I’ve tried to hold up my end,” she said. “I just don’t know why it is so hard for me to get what is due me.”