DOES oversight hearing discusses domestic worker rights, funding deficit 

A group of people in yellow shirts stand behind a banner that calls on the D.C. Council to pass the domestic workers bill of rights.

Members of the D.C. chapter of the National Domestic Worker Alliance rally in front of the Wilson Building on Nov. 10. Photo by Annemarie Cuccia.

Nearly 50 D.C. residents and community leaders signed up to comment on the Department of Employment Services’s performance over the past year, during what ended up being 11 hours worth of testimony spread across Feb. 21 and 27

Oversight of the department — including this annual assessment as the D.C. Council prepares to debate the budget for the next fiscal year — falls to the council’s Committee of Executive Administration and Labor. 

As federal COVID relief funding runs out amid a local budget deficit, many residents focused on increased funding and support in light of expected budget cuts for the upcoming fiscal year. Others spoke to areas of improvement for the agency, like the implementation of benefits and recent legislation. 

Domestic worker employment rights 

Almost a dozen people criticized delays in the implementation of the Domestic Worker Employment Rights Amendment Act of 2022, which established certain protections for domestic workers from their employers. Advocates and workers repeatedly highlighted the agency’s failure to post templates of written contracts on a new website and hire two additional DOES staffers to oversee enforcement of the legislation. The deadline for the implementation of these programs was Sept. 30, the end of FY 2023. 

“So many times, domestic workers only have a verbal agreement with their employers. There’s a lot of informality in this sector, and it’s very easy for employers to go back on their word,” said Alana Eichner, the co-director of National Domestic Workers Alliance’s D.C. chapter. “Having a written contract makes all the difference.” 

During the second day of hearings, Committee Chair and At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds questioned DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes about the delays. Morris- Hughes promised the website and sample contracts would be launched by March 1; they have since been published on the DOES website. The sample contract is available in both English and Spanish, and a disclaimer on the website asks readers to return in the near future for more language options of the sample contract. 

“I watched and heard the testimony. I appreciate when people take out their time and let their voices be heard. We heard them. We are on it,” Morris-Hughes said in the hearing. 

Bonds did not ask for the reason behind the delay in implementation. 

Eichner, with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, commended the recent implementation of the legislation during an interview with Street Sense, but said she hopes it will be followed by continued outreach to both domestic workers and employers, as well as efforts to make the language more accessible, both in plain language and non-English options. 

Unemployment insurance backlog 

Since the pandemic, DOES has struggled to clear a backlog of unemployment insurance claims. In 2021, Mayor Muriel Bowser spent nearly $11 million hiring additional staff to clear the backlog

Nearly three years later, however, the backlog remains substantial. In February, Morris- Hughes testified that the backlog of insurance claims had dropped from nearly 45,000 from last year’s hearings in 2023 to 16,000 as of January 2024, which she said will be resolved by the end of FY 2024. 

She said D O E S believes of the 16,000 claims, a significant portion — nearly 6,000 — are fraudulent. According to her testimony, it takes DOES less than 21 days to adjudicate claims. 

The agency also recently launched its long-awaited new assistance portal, the Unemployment Insurance Benefits System, to help centralize the process. It allows claimants to submit and request forms like the 1099, communicate with DOES representatives, and access claims from mobile devices. 

Some of the previous issues surrounding DOES’s management of claims were raised once again at the hearing. Megan Ocean, a staff attorney with Legal Aid D.C., noted in a joint testimony with the Claimant Advocacy Program that claimants still cannot file for employment insurance over the phone. This forces people with limited or no access to technology like computers to register for unemployment insurance in-person, adding an extra obstacle to receiving benefits. 

The two organizations Ocean represented also critiqued the DOES for marking overpayments as fraud. If a claimant’s earnings don’t match what DOES has listed, the agency will automatically assume fraud without an investigation, Ocean said. This happens even if the discrepancy was simply a reporting error, they said, describing the experiences of several Legal Aid clients. 

Morris-Hughes defended the assessment process, noting the new site has two-factor authentication that should make it more difficult for people to commit identity-based fraud, one of the top three reasons DOES finds claims to be fraudulent. The other two most common are employer separation information that can’t be verified and if a person files a claim after being fired for misconduct. 

Funding difficulties 

At least three people highlighted the impact that cuts to DOES’s budget have had on their work, which largely centered around expanding employment opportunities for minority communities. A half dozen more nonprofit leaders asked DOES to increase funding for their organizations, many of which receive year-to-year grants from DOES. 

As federal funding from the pandemic — which included $250 million in American Rescue Act funding for D.C. agencies in FY 2023 — wanes, government services are left struggling to fill the gaps. Although Bowser has not yet presented the FY 2025 budget, councilmembers are bracing for further potential cuts to programs, including DOES. Last year, DOES experienced a 23 percent budget cut, nearly $16 million, forcing the agency to trim some of its nonessential services. 

“Every penny has to go much further than recent years,” Bonds said at the hearing. 

To retain financial support from the council, several members of the newly formed Poverty Commission, charged with studying ways to combat poverty in the District, testified about its progress. Newly elected chair Dr. Marla Dean listed the commission’s goals, which include organizing the first D.C. Eradicating Poverty Summit and engaging government partners and residents with lived experience to reduce poverty levels. She also requested that the agency give them the support to meet these goals as it works to submit a poverty-reduction plan to DOES in the next several years. 

Paid leave 

Morris-Hughes testified that the universal paid family leave budget is solvent, meaning it should have enough money to fund benefits for the remainder of the year. Since its inception in 2020, Morris-Hughes said that the fund has paid nearly 55,000 claims from new parents. 

Despite the program’s apparent success, advocates noted that there are sometimes difficulties accessing the benefits. Yael Shafritz, director of Jews United for Justice, said a glitch in the website delayed the processing of their organization’s medical leave benefits for three days. Others called for the website to be accessible in languages other than English. Morris-Hughes said the agency was set to launch a marketing campaign on March 1 to attempt to address equity issues in prenatal care. 

Advocates also called on the council to move the Universal Paid Leave Portability Amendment Act of 2023 forward. The bill was introduced by Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis on Feb. 8 and would allow workers to receive paid family and medical leave when they are between jobs. 

“I think it is time for us to bring that back to the table and take a closer look at it,” Bonds said of the bill. 

Laura Brown, the director of First Shift Justice, also called for technical revisions to the paid leave program, including an expansion of family definitions to increase who can apply for benefits (such as allowing people like nieces and grandchildren who are eligible for caregiving leave under the Paid Family Leave Act to access paid leave benefits), removing bedrest as a prenatal medical recommendation, and include spending time bonding with children as an event eligible for paid family leave. 

Issues |Abuse|Jobs|Unemployment

Region |Washington DC

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