The District’s unemployment rate continues to rise due to COVID-19, with August’s preliminary job estimates showing a loss of 13,900 for a total of 740,500 jobs. In September, the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DOES) reported a loss of 6,300 private-sector jobs and 7,600 jobs in the public sector. These numbers not only paint a dark picture of the state of unemployment in the District, but they also speak to the overall financial toll the pandemic is having on thousands of District unemployed workers across all eight wards, and the ability of one local agency to manage it.
A lifeline for unemployed workers exists, but many are unaware of the D.C. unemployment compensation programs managed by DOES available to them. For example, workers who received unemployment compensation but reached the end of their initial 26 weeks of benefits may still be eligible for an additional 13-week extension. Yet, in D.C., they must apply, unlike in other states where the extension is automatic. Also, there is the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) for self-employed individuals seeking part-time employment, or who otherwise would not qualify for regular unemployment compensation. According to the Department of Labor, to qualify for the 39-week compensation program, one must not be eligible for regular unemployment benefits and be unemployed, partially unemployed, or unable or unavailable to work because of certain health or economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. But who knows this?
At-Large Council member Elissa Silverman, chair of the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, held a public hearing last month with DOES officials to review their response to the COVID-19 public health emergency. She followed up this week with a letter to Director Unique Morris-Hughes in which she stated, “One of the major takeaways from the testimony is that DOES communications need to be strengthened to help claimants better understand both how programs work and how to engage with DOES to iron out issues with their claims.”
Workers, she said, “are relying on these funds to survive.” And, she’s correct. We don’t know how long this pandemic will last, nor do we know how much longer these programs will be available to provide much-needed life-support to local workers. What we do know is that the resources are there now, and we support Council member Silverman’s persistence in ensuring DOES is fully engaged in informing and meeting the needs of the District’s unemployed workers.