A backlog in the processing of unemployment claims has led to a delay in benefits. (Courtesy of wjla.com)
A backlog in the processing of unemployment claims has led to a delay in benefits. (Courtesy of wjla.com)

After nearly seven months, and an untold number of hours on the phone, Zina Ford recently found out, for the third time, that she wouldn’t receive unemployment benefits anytime soon, though she contends the reason seems unclear at the moment, even after several emails and conversations with D.C. Department of Employment Services (DOES) personnel.

Even with an appeal in motion, Ford hasn’t maintained much hope about acquiring what’s estimated to be several hundreds of dollars that have accumulated since March, mainly because of a backlog of applications and what she described as DOES’ penchant for disorganization and miscommunication.

“Why am I on hold for hours at a time with people who don’t know anything? The D.C. government needs to get it together,” said Ford, a lifelong D.C. resident and massage therapist of nearly a decade.

Earlier this year, shortly after the coronavirus pandemic, and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s public health emergency declaration spurred job losses across the region, Ford embarked on a labyrinthic endeavor to secure unemployment benefits.

Before the launch of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) under the CARES Act, Ford’s status as a contractor precluded her from receiving funds.

On her second attempt to apply for benefits, however, she learned that her previous part-time job, and the circumstances of her transition to full-time contractual work last year, deemed her ineligible for COVID-19 relief.

For the time being, Ford, a mother of one who lives with her significant other, continues to apply for jobs while making submissions for the $300 in weekly benefits doled out under the newly launched Lost Wages Assistance Program.

“I’m overqualified as a massage therapist so no one’s been contacting me,” Ford told The Informer.

“I started offering massages again, but I haven’t had many clients because nobody wants to be touched. If they do, they want to go to a spa setting,” she added.

“Spots are open, but spas aren’t hiring. I started massaging again last month, and [since then] I’ve had a total of six people.”

Ford counts among a contingent of self-employed and contractual workers who, because of their precarious status, have found difficulty in acquiring COVID-19 unemployment benefits, though they’ve contributed the District’s cultural economy in various capacities.

Between March and September, DOES reported more than 148,000 newly filed unemployment claims — an amount several times greater than the entirety of 2019.

With that influx came issues involving DOES’ online filing system and long wait times on the phone.

One particular hurdle centers on the lack of updates to the DOES website. During an oversight hearing hosted by the D.C. Council Committee on Labor and Workforce Development last week, D.C. Councilmember Elissa Silverman (I-at Large) requested the allocation of funds in the FY 2021 budget to update DOES’ unemployment claims system.

For gig workers, legislation currently before the D.C. Council Committee on Labor and Workforce Development would expand the definition of employment.

If passed, the law, the Unemployment Compensation Employer Classification Amendment Act, would bring the District’s unemployment compensation into line with federal rules, identifying any service done for a jurisdiction as employment. It also allows government entities to make payments into the District’s Unemployment Fund.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) introduced the legislation last October at the request of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D).

Though she didn’t attend the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development’s oversight hearing, DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes submitted testimony that countered what she described as misinformation circulated on social media about DOES not giving PUA and unemployment insurance backpay.

In her letter, Morris-Hughes highlighted similar bureaucratic issues affecting other jurisdictions. She also noted that keeping up with changing federal mandates and facilitating new relief programs has increased the time needed to verify claims, particularly in cases when people outline work history in different states.

Throughout much of September, dozens of public witnesses recounted their struggles to acquire unemployment benefits. In his testimony, AK Adams, a D.C. resident and small business owner, argued that DOES’ priority should be to dole unemployment funds as quickly as possible, not protecting federal disaster relief funds from misuse.

“DOES has never been tasked with analyzing & evaluating small business finances, independent contractors and gig economy workers, and while it’s amazing that DOES staff have learned so much so quickly, and stepped up to handle such incredible increases in claims and inquiries, there are still hundreds, perhaps thousands of D.C. residents that have not received the pandemic relief help Congress authorized in April,” Adams said in his testimony.

Before the pandemic, Adams designed, built, and operated sound systems for live music venues including Local 16, DC Funk Parade, and Capital Jazz Fest. In August, after filing a PUA claim, he would receive a minimum of $179 per week, and the assurance of retroactive payments for claims going back to March.

In making his comments, Adams expressed a desire to see the most ideal outcome materialize, not just for him, but all D.C. residents submitting unemployment claims during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Now is not the time for administrative and bureaucratic concerns to trump the urgent needs of D.C.’s self-employed sector, which includes the ‘creative economy’ Mayor Bowser often encourages as one of DC’s strong points,” Adams said.

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Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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