For the past two years, D.C.’s Department of Employment Services, has been a focal point of the District’s pandemic response.
D.C. workers who lost their jobs during COVID-19 turned to the agency, known as DOES, for help in the form of unemployment benefits. By most accounts, these workers encountered an agency that wasn’t prepared to handle the unprecedented influx of claims, contributing to 12-hour wait times and conflicting guidance. By October 2020, some workers who first applied for unemployment in March still had not received benefits, Street Sense Media reported at the time.
While most of these original claims have been resolved, the overarching criticisms of DOES have not. The same problems workers cited in 2020 — poor communication from the agency, technology issues, and delayed payments — were raised once again in this year’s DOES oversight hearings.
“This experience and COVID has shown why unemployment insurance is critical — it’s the absolute best safety net we have to catch workers and their families from falling into an economic abyss,” At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman said in an interview with Street Sense Media and The DC Line.
Silverman chairs the council’s Labor and Workforce Development Committee, which held DOES performance oversight hearings in February. Despite her continuing concerns about the agency’s operations, she said she agrees with the explanations offered by DOES as to why it took so long to adjudicate claims, including an outdated online unemployment system and an onslaught of claims triple the normal amount. She also commended the agency’s employees for all the claims they processed over the last two years.
But her main feeling, she said, was one of frustration — frustration that some people were still waiting for benefits, and that DOES still seems to be plagued by the same issues she identified in 2020.
“For many claimants, collecting unemployment has been like banging their head against a wall,” she said. “And it just shouldn’t be that way.”
The agency, according to testimony from advocates and workers, is still processing claims from at least 206 workers seeking back pay from 2020. Meanwhile, the agency has stopped accepting unemployment compensation claims by phone, and the Legal Aid Society has filed a pending lawsuit around long-standing criticisms about the quality of DOES’s customer service. DOES did not respond to requests for additional comment by press time.
“DOES has completely failed the people of D.C.,” Trupti Patel, the advisory neighborhood commissioner for single-member district 2A03 in Foggy Bottom, said at the oversight hearing on Feb. 14.
Still waiting for benefits
Patel is one of 206 workers still waiting for back pay from DOES. These claimants are eligible for back pay to make up for the weeks between when they became eligible for benefits and when DOES processed their application and began paying them. (According to testimony this week, the number of affected workers has dropped from the 247 cited at February’s performance hearings.)
Patel has been waiting for eight months to get five weeks of back pay, but that’s just one aspect of the problems she has encountered. While she was trying to obtain that money, DOES stopped her ongoing benefits in November 2021, though she says she was still eligible. Without prior notice, the agency listed her as ineligible for benefits and told her she owed DOES all of the money she’d received — $12,000 — up to then. At one point, a DOES representative told her she would have to be “flushed out of the system” in order to correct the problem, although an IT glitch meant that employees wouldn’t be able to backdate her claims for the benefits she’s missed since being removed.
DOES acknowledges there are delays in back pay. In the agency’s written responses to the committee’s pre-hearing questions, it cited three main reasons DOES might take longer to adjudicate back pay claims. For one, the agency has to investigate disputes between the applicant and their former employer about why the employee was laid off. Second, DOES has to confirm the employee has enough qualifying wages.
Finally, in cases like Patel’s, IT issues delay payment. At the Feb. 17 oversight hearing, DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes said the agency also has to determine if claimants are eligible in D.C. if they have wages in another state.
According to Morris-Hughes, DOES sent communications to all claimants instructing them to contact the agency if they were owed back pay — the source of the 206 number. However, Silverman said she is concerned the process didn’t uncover everyone who is eligible. Based on the volume of calls to her office, she said, it seems like far more workers are in fact waiting for back pay, most of them from the omicron surge in late 2021 and early 2022.
“I’m skeptical of the numbers,” Silverman said.
Jen Jenkins, policy advocate with the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, agrees. The organization is still handling upward of 40 unemployment benefits cases each week, including many that involve back pay. “There’s definitely hundreds, if not thousands, that are still seeking back pay six months after CARES expired,” Jenkins said. Federal unemployment benefits offered through the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan expired on Sept. 4, 2021.
While the majority of claimants are waiting for back pay, a few are still struggling to get benefits at all.
David Young first applied for unemployment two years ago, after his job rolled back his hours. He said DOES initially told him he’d already received benefits — $12,000 worth. Young later learned someone he’d previously known obtained his information and fraudulently applied for unemployment under his name. Young said he never received any communication from DOES before he reached out to the agency.
Upon learning about the fraud, Young filled out all of the paperwork the agency requested. DOES representatives have been slow to respond to his emails if they do at all, Young said in an interview. He has another job now, but still hasn’t received the benefits he was entitled to while he was unemployed.
“It was a major setback,” Young said. He fell behind on bills and struggled to pay for presents and activities for his kids. “It was just a lot … and for them not to do anything about the situation or try to rectify the situation was just even more crazy.”
Jasmine Collins, who testified at the Feb. 14 public hearing, had a similar experience. She had to leave her job in September when both she and her children caught COVID-19. When she tried to file for unemployment, she discovered someone had fraudulently filed a claim in her name. Collins told the council that she still hadn’t heard back from the agency about the fraud as of mid-February.
Another resident, Jasmine Pressey, spent two years seeking the benefits she was due. After she applied three times in 2020, sent three follow-up emails, and called the agency multiple times, DOES representatives told her they had no evidence she’d ever contacted them. The agency denied having a pandemic unemployment assistance claim from Pressey until she provided the confirmation number. Late last year, still denying Pressey had contacted DOES in 2020, the agency asked her to submit her phone logs from a year and a half earlier to prove she’d called them.
“People are on unemployment for a short time, but DOES’s actions have lifelong impacts,” Pressey testified.
During the committee’s second performance oversight hearing, Morris-Hughes acknowledged the burden that situations like Pressey’s impose on workers.
“We did not intentionally create a situation or a set of circumstances to add on to any additional hardship,” she said, pledging that DOES will ensure all D.C. workers get the benefits they are entitled to.
Silverman said complaints about back-and-forth experiences with DOES are common. Several workers have reported sending in paperwork multiple times — only for DOES to say it doesn’t have it — or having to wait weeks to hear back from the agency.
DOES seems to resolve issues, Silverman acknowledged, when claimants obtain assistance from her office or contact the director directly. “But if not, you end up in this purgatory,” she said. “And that’s not delivering effective and efficient government service.”
Confusing customer service
Complaints about the quality of service have made it to the courts. On Jan. 5, the Legal Aid Society and Alston & Bird LLP filed a complaint in D.C. Superior Court alleging the District has “systematically violated the rights of DC workers filing for unemployment benefits,” according to a press release.
The suit argues D.C. is depriving workers of the right to contest the denial of benefits by providing incomplete or delayed notices. The four plaintiffs all say they did not receive the required explanation for why DOES ruled them ineligible or stopped their benefits. They are seeking back benefits, as well as a ruling by the court that would “prohibit the District from denying, terminating, or offsetting unemployment benefits in the future without providing a written rationale,” according to the press release.
When denying an application for benefits, DOES is supposed to send a written notice that includes the rationale. Jenkins said several claimants never received these notices, received them months later, or received them only with the help of an organization like Legal Aid. While any claimant who is denied benefits is technically allowed to file an appeal with the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH), it’s difficult to succeed without knowing the reason for the denial, Jenkins said.
“What happens is our clients just get trapped with OAH without that initial determination from DOES,” Jenkins said. “This whole time they’re reaching out to [DOES] trying to figure out why they were denied. Because they have no written determination, they’re not getting the money that they need.”
These issues did not originate with the pandemic, Jenkins said.
Silverman said she has heard repeated complaints about poor customer service — that DOES employees misdirect claimants, lose claims, and provide inconsistent instructions. The outcry has continued, she said, despite the agency’s claims it has increased customer service training and created a “culture of excellence.”
Silverman described it as the kind of issue that might make her inclined to bang her “head against the wall” out of frustration. “We have brought this up a lot,” she said in an interview. “There is a clear pattern that claimants are not being given consistent answers, which says to me that there’s a standard operating procedure issue and that there’s a training issue.”
Both DOES leadership and Silverman agree on the challenge of delivering solid customer service in the early days of the pandemic. The agency was rapidly bringing on employees, including volunteers from other sectors of the government — including Silverman herself for a time.
But as claims slowed, Morris-Hughes said, the agency has repeatedly trained employees in its unemployment insurance division, bringing in a quality assurance team and creating a training program called UI University. She also testified that so far in fiscal year 2022, 90% of non-unemployment insurance calls to DOES were ranked as highly satisfactory. She did not provide a percentage for calls focused on unemployment insurance.
“The answers that you’re giving sound great, but they don’t jibe with what we’re hearing from claimants,” Silverman told Morris-Hughes at the hearing, referring to the increased customer service training.
Silverman wants to see standardized protocols in the call center, with claims tracked efficiently and employees trained in standard resolutions. To do this, she suggested DOES bring in outside help to train call center employees. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s budget, released March 16, includes $780,000 to modernize the DOES call center. According to testimony from Morris-Hughes at a March 28 budget oversight hearing, this money will allow DOES to hire 10 employees for quality assurance and to create a modern platform to manage calls. Silverman expressed concern this would not improve overall service quality.
“We have a lot of people who work for the agency who work really hard, but it’s like they’re handcuffed because they have outdated systems. They don’t have modern approaches to technology, and I think there could be more leadership when it comes to communication,” Silverman said in an interview.
In addition to the quality of customer service, Silverman and advocates expressed concern about the way DOES communicates with claimants. The agency used to accept initial benefits applications over the phone but stopped during the pandemic as a fraud prevention measure. Morris-Hughes said the change means that identity verification takes place in person or online, adding that only a few states still accept initial claims over the phone.
Both Jenkins and Silverman urged DOES to resume accepting initial applications over the phone. Would-be applicants may have inconsistent internet access, and applying in person requires workers to arrange for transportation, advocates said in explaining the extreme impact of the change for many would-be applicants.
“Eliminating telephone access places an unnecessary barrier in the way of receiving benefits and ultimately puts low-income workers at greater risk of foreclosure, homelessness, and collateral consequences of job loss,” Jenkins said at the hearing.
Meanwhile, the long-awaited modernization of the UI benefits computer system will take longer to implement than planned. In last year’s budget support act, the council called for DOES to finish the overhaul of the current system, which is over 40 years old, by the end of September 2022. Morris-Hughes said at the hearing she never promised she could meet that deadline, and no vendors could commit to having anything ready before February 2023, the new tentative release date.
Silverman expressed frustration at this delay, especially since she has been pushing the agency to develop a new system since the 2008 recession, around the time she started working as communications director and policy analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. At the start of the pandemic, when a broad array of workers sought unemployment assistance, many applicants were shocked to find a system that was optimized for the discontinued Microsoft Explorer browser and that would not work on smartphones. The outdated operating system also meant that relatively minor updates took weeks or even months to implement.
“We cannot go through another recession or even another year with an unemployment system that to make a small change takes weeks on weeks,” Silverman said at the Feb. 14 oversight hearing, adding that applicants need to be able to access the system on their phone and view changes in real-time, neither of which they can do with the current system. “That, I have to say, was disappointing,” she said of the February 2023 timeline.
This article was co-published with The DC Line. It has been slightly edited from the version that appeared in print.
Annemarie Cuccia covers DC government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. This joint position was made possible by The Nash Foundation and individual contributors.