DC’s unemployed testify about frustrations in accessing extension benefits

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, many D.C. residents who are relying on unemployment benefits, and programs that extend those benefits, are sharing their frustrations with city leaders. They say there’s added anxiety with only 18 days before federal benefits expire.

Monica Stempo, a former bartender in D.C., joined other restaurant, self-employed and gig workers who testified to the D.C. Council’s Committee on Labor and Workforce Development about their experiences trying to access unemployment extension benefits through the city’s Department of Employment Services.

“It’s very difficult to understand what the steps and processes are. I think just some way to streamline the process,” Stempo said to committee Chair Elissa Silverman, D-At-Large.

Silverman expressed empathy for those who have struggled to get a response from DOES, and added her concerns about the fast-approaching expiration of federal benefits that fund Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Compensation programs.

“We need Congress to stop dithering … We cannot do this alone on the city and state level; we need federal money,” Silverman said.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser recently shared that she wrote President-elect Joe Biden to pay the city what it is owed in CARES Act funding. Unemployment extension benefits fall under the CARES Act umbrella.

Many members of the D.C. Bar and Restaurant Alliance who worked a side job in Virginia or Maryland, or even worked just a few hours in another jurisdiction, are being directed by DOES to contact that state and are being given the runaround, said Zachary Hoffman with the alliance.

“There’s a complete lack of guidance in how to interact with the unemployment departments of Maryland and Virginia. There’s pretty much an attitude of, ‘Go talk to them and come back to us,'” Hoffman said in his testimony.

Professional juggler Christian Kloc said that he was unclear on how to apply for extension benefits and what he was eligible for, and is now playing catch up.

“From my perspective, DOES expects those applying for unemployment to intuitively know the right path, and when we don’t do the right thing, they believe we were just confused or just don’t actually want the benefits badly enough. There should be no guesswork or uncertainty in this process. If the government has made requirements crystal clear for independent contractors like me, we would have jumped through every hoop you asked us to,” Kloc said.

Legal Aid attorney Drake Hagner said she has panicked calls from those relying on unemployment assistance nervous about what’s next and wondering what action they can take.

She said she has no answers for them. However, she offered tips for those who want to ensure they’re doing all they can to access benefits:

  1. Request to increase your benefit amount if the recipient made more than $19,000 more in 2019.
  2. Check your eligibility, which can include those who were unable to work due to the closure of schools, nursing homes or other support systems for families.
  3. File an appeal, through Legal Aid if desired, if D.C.’s Department of Employment Services claims a recipient did not return an email that excludes the recipient from back benefits.

Confusion is what Hagner is hearing from unemployed workers, and she suggested taking action or contacting Legal Aid before the federal benefits run out.

“We’re going to see 39,000 people with PUA lose those benefits the day after Christmas. We’re going to see 37,000 with PEUC lose (benefits),” Hagner said. “Hopefully, they can transfer to extended benefits, but there’s going to be money on the table of those 13 weeks that they haven’t been able to exhaust. And, one big question for DOES is, how is our city preparing for Dec. 26?”

More Coronavirus News

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

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Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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