Amid Congressional gridlock, pressure mounts on DC to apply for $300 weekly federal unemployment benefits

A Black woman speaking at a podium

Mayor Muriel Bowser is facing growing calls to enroll D.C. in the grant program being offered by the Trump administration. Photo by Matailong Du

More than a month after the $600 per week federal unemployment benefits expired, Congress has yet to negotiate an extension of the program, and pressure is now mounting on D.C. to apply for the temporary relief measure being offered by the Trump administration.

After multiple stalled talks between Congressional leaders and the White House in late July, President Trump signed an executive order on Aug. 8 allocating $44 billion in federal disaster relief funds to be administered to states through the Lost Wages Assistance grant program. Under this program, states can apply with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for $300 per week unemployment benefits per person for those who receive at least $100 in state benefits.

The District has publicly said very little about whether it will pursue the grant money. During an August 17 press conference, Mayor Muriel Bowser briefly addressed the issue, saying she did not “fully appreciate the legality” of Trump’s executive actions and instead called on Congress to pass a bill. 

Since then, there have been growing calls for D.C. to set aside its concerns and apply for the $300 weekly unemployment benefits to get thousands of people much-needed relief. 

In an op-ed published in The Washington Post this week, Megan Clark, a 38-year old single mother from Arlington, Virginia, currently on furlough, called on Bowser to reconsider her stance, writing that the extra $300 per week “would make all the difference to families in the same position as mine.”

“The maximum unemployment benefit in D.C. is $400 a week, after taxes. My rent is $1,700 a month,” Clark wrote. “My family, as well as thousands of others, will not be able to afford the basic cost of living. We will be forced to go thousands of dollars in debt, go homeless or hungry, or worse.”

At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who chairs the D.C. Council Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, agrees. In a statement, Silverman said the District should apply to the grant program as long as Trump’s executive order is “legally sufficient,” adding that the main goal “is to keep these households and our local economy as stable as possible in this uncertain time.” She said she has heard from some workers asking why D.C. hasn’t yet applied for the unemployment benefits.

“Households are on the brink right now. Unfortunately, I think the executive order and the Congressional deal are caught up in 2020 electoral politics,” Silverman said. “Let me be clear, for the sake of our country and our city, we need Trump voted out of office. But families shouldn’t face an economic abyss because of presidential politics.”

Silverman said she discussed the FEMA grant program with Unique Morris-Hughes, the director of the Department of Employment Services (DOES), and was told by her that the decision on participating in the program would be made by Bowser, who wants to see if a Congressional deal will happen.

A spokesperson for Bowser did not respond to multiple requests for comment by the time of publication. But in an Aug. 24 statement, a DOES spokesperson said the agency continues to evaluate the grant program ahead of the Sept. 10 deadline for applying.

“Despite the lack of leadership exhibited at the federal level, we continue to study and review the complexities of the FEMA grant and the President’s Executive Order in hopes that Congress will work together on legislation that provides the level and types of relief that millions of Americans need,” the spokesperson said. “The fact that nearly 20 states still have not applied is indicative of the fact that these chaotic, patchwork solutions are not what our country needs right now; still, as the September 10 deadline approaches, we will continue to review the application.” 

As of the day DOES responded to Street Sense Media, a total of 40 states have applied or will apply to the program, and 30 have been approved by FEMA. During a press conference on Aug. 31, Bowser announced D.C. would apply for the grant. By then, only two states had not applied.

The $300 per week being offered by the Trump administration is only half the amount that Congress was providing to more than 28 million Americans until the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) benefits expired on July 25. And unlike the FEMA grant program, which requires states to be contributing at least $100 per person, FPUC was available to anyone who was receiving some form of jobless benefits. 

As such, anyone receiving less than $100 in state UI benefits from the District would be ineligible if D.C. enrolled in the program. According to Eliza Forsythe, a labor economist and assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, that could be up to 6% of the people getting regular UI benefits from D.C.

Yet despite these flaws with the grant program, as well as concerns about the legality of Trump’s executive orders and the bureaucratic changes that need to be made to state unemployment insurance (UI) systems to administer the FEMA money, many states that were initially reluctant to apply are now seeking the grant funds.

Maryland has already been approved for the program, and Virginia is currently in the process of applying. Alena Yarmosky, a spokesperson for Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, said in an email the state anticipates it could be three to four weeks before residents start receiving benefits, depending on when Virginia is approved, when funds are distributed and when necessary updates to the state’s UI infrastructure are made.

The District’s unemployment rate in July was 8.4 percent, up from 5.6 percent in July 2019. In the week ending August 1, a total of 87,000 people employed in the District were receiving some form of unemployment benefits, according to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis. And while daily unemployment compensation claims in D.C. have steadily decreased since April, when there were between 2500 and 3000 claims being filed each day, there are still roughly 200 to 400 claims currently being filed each day.

A graph showing a downward trend in daily unemployment claims
Daily unemployment compensation claims have steadily fallen since March, but there are still between 200 to 400 claims being filed each day. Graph by Avi Bajpai

Many in the District still haven’t received their regular UI benefits from DOESin some cases despite applying months agodue to weeks-long delays, endless hold times when calling the department and a nearly two-decade-old website that is frequently overrun with glitches, DCist reported this week. 

The expiration of federal unemployment benefits that have yet to be replaced for people employed in D.C., on top of that, has amplified existing financial hardships for many families, including paying rent and affording basic necessities.

According to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse survey, 26,000 tenants reported that they were behind on rent for the week ending July 21. As part of the District’s response to the public health emergency, the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) implemented two new programs to help tenants who may have experienced disruptions in their ability to make rent payments.

According to DHCD Director Polly Donaldson, the Tenant Based Rental Assistance (TBRA) Program and the COVID-19 Housing Assistance Program (CHAP) have offered a total of $7.7 million in rental assistance. As of Aug. 24, about 200 applications have been submitted to the TBRA Program and about 700 applications have been submitted to CHAP. Despite the steady increase in demand for rental assistance in each program, funding is still available for both, according to Donaldson.

There has also been a significant increase in families seeking assistance at the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, which provides families with emergency housing and employment services. The center processed 771 and 889 requests for help from families in June and July respectively, up from 532 requests in May, according to data provided by the Department of Human Services (DHS). As of Aug. 20, Virginia Williams had already processed 442 requests during this month. 

Some data include duplicate numbers if families requested help multiple times in a given month, a DHS spokesperson said.

A graph showing an uptick in families seeking assistance at Virginia Williams
The number of families seeking assistance at Virginia Williams increased from 532 in May to 771 in June and 889 in July. Graph by Avi Bajpai

At the same time that Virginia Williams saw an increase in families seeking assistance, fewer people have been staying at the District’s low-barrier shelters. Between March and August, the total number of individuals staying across all low-barrier shelters fell by 39 percent, as compared to a 28 percent decrease during the same period last year.

A graph showing a decline in the total number of people staying at DC's low-barrier shelters
The total number of individuals staying across the District’s low-barrier shelters has decreased by 39 percent since March. Graph by Avi Bajpai

D.C. residents are also experiencing food insecurity as 63,000 adults in the District reported that their household sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the last seven days for the week ending July 21, according to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. 

Although it has been difficult for D.C. food banks and non-profit organizations to gauge any increased needs specifically due to the delay in the passage of a new relief bill, George Jones, CEO of Bread for the City, said residents have been bringing up questions and concerns about accessing unemployment insurance. 

“People are anxious about the discontinuation or even the reduction of unemployment benefits, in the words of our community members,” Jones said. “Three out of the four people we serve, primarily, aren’t working … but we do know that people who are in service sector jobs or frontline jobs, if you will, turn to us for food and for access and for advice in our legal services and our social services because of the impact of the pandemic on their personal lives.”

Martha’s Table, another non-profit organization, continued operating under revised measures since March. Whitney Faison, the assistant director of communications for Martha’s Table, said needs have been accelerating since the outbreak of the public health crisis as the organization went from serving 2,000 residents per month through their food markets to 2,000 residents each week. 

“We’re not necessarily waiting for the government to make a decision. We are focused on making the decisions that are best for our neighbors and our families based on what they communicated to us and their needs,” Faison said.

The organization has also been supporting the 137 families enrolled in their early education program by providing over $1.2 million in cash assistance, grocery store gift cards, and a four-month supply of diapers, wipes and formula, according to Faison.

“We’re continuing to work with families on providing new cash transfers, cash assistance and those resources,” Faison said.

On August 26, Bowser and the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) announced that more than 30 District-based non-profit organizations will receive up to $50,000 in grant assistance from the COVID-19 Nonprofit Support Grant, which totals nearly $1.5 million. 

“No one has been spared from the economic impact of the COVID-19 public health emergency,” said Donaldson in the news release. “It’s usually nonprofit and community organizations that are relied upon and able to assist people in times of need, but these are unique circumstances. Our goal is to help eligible organizations by offering a small capital infusion.”

Since March, and leading up to last month, the District passed several COVID-19 relief bills in order to further support residents through addressing issues such as evictions, rental assistance and unemployment. During the latest meeting for this year’s budget season, the Council included provisions to expand eligibility for a COVID-era cash grant measure so that informal or cash economy workers who are excluded from receiving unemployment insurance and other benefits may be covered. The Council also extended the current rent control law for 10 more years, though discussions will continue for further reform. 

Still, the need to supplement unemployment benefits for thousands of people employed in the District remains urgent. When asked if D.C. could temporarily increase its regular jobless benefits while waiting for a Congressional deal, Silverman said “I wish we could, but the District of Columbia government is facing the same situation many households are facing: Our costs remain the same or are increasing, while the money coming in is decreasing.”

“We need the federal government’s help,” she said.

Updated (08.31.2020)

This article has been updated to include Mayor Bowser’s announcement on Aug. 31 that D.C. will apply for the $300 weekly unemployment benefits. Language referring to recipients of unemployment benefits has also been updated for accuracy to include anyone employed in the District.

Issues |Hunger|Jobs|Shelters|Tenants|Unemployment

Region |Washington DC

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