DC unemployment benefits system to be audited after complaints system failed

The District of Columbia’s Inspector General will audit D.C.’s Department of Employment Services, in response to complaints of technical glitches and poor communication, resulting in struggling unemployed workers going weeks or months without income.

In a joint oversight roundtable, D.C. Councilmembers Elissa Silverman and Robert White said employees had been asked to stay home to prevent spread of the coronavirus.

“That was an incredible sacrifice that we asked of our workers, but the unemployment insurance safety net was supposed to be there to help people make it through this time,” said Silverman.

Between mid-March and September 2020, more than 143,000 new claims for unemployment were filed in the District — five times the number filed in 2019.

Technical glitches in what councilmembers called D.C.’s “antiquated” filing system resulted in frustration and delays in the payment of unemployment insurance benefits.

“People are just desperate,” said Silverman. “They depend on their UI (unemployment insurance) benefits to get by, and to support their families. And they are having immense trouble getting their money.”

Silverman said she had heard from constituents whose lives have been forever changed: “People who have become homeless, who literally cannot afford to buy food and who have had to sell their belongings, just to keep the lights on.”

White and several residents who provided public comment said they had been told that the pandemic had produced an unprecedented challenge, involving relief payments and demands from the federal government.

“The changes to the benefits and the guidelines apply to every state, equally,” said White. “So, why does it seem that D.C. is having a much harder time than most other states in keeping people’s benefits coming.

“When people have to get in touch with elected officials in order for the system to work, that is a sign that the system is broken,” said White.

In a May 3 letter to DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes, the Office of the Inspector General said the audit would assess the agency’s “responsiveness in processing UI claims,” and “controls over the accessibility, availability, and reliability” of the District’s system.

Affected residents testifying before the roundtable said the delay in receiving unemployment benefits was producing intolerable stress.

“My resources are thin,” said Valerie Graham. “I don’t have an awesome landlord, who’s going to be nice when I say, ‘Hey, I don’t have the rent.'”

While landlords are temporarily prevented from evicting tenants,  Graham said her landlord “can make my life difficult in other ways.”

Silverman, White and several members of the public described DOES as providing conflicting information and guidance to unemployed workers seeking relief from the system they paid into while they were working.

“Receiving benefits is not supposed to be our full-time job,” said Gideon Sandford. “We pay DOES to issue benefits.”

The audit will begin around May 12, according to the letter from the OIG.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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