With Unemployment Insurance [UI] benefits, and a similar form of economic relief for freelance workers, scheduled to expire within a matter of days for some District residents, and within the next few weeks for several more, the D.C. Council has coalesced around legislation extending the benefits period beyond the upcoming elections in November.
The D.C. Council unanimously approved the legislation on Oct. 20, just days before the October 23 deadline the Council’s Committee on Labor and Workforce Development gave the D.C. Department of Employment Services [DOES] to answer questions regarding the automatic extension of UI benefits, resolution of back pay, and a more efficient redetermination process for workers receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance [PUA].
Though the bill, titled the Unemployment Benefits Extension Emergency Act, passed unanimously on the Council, D.C. Councilmember Elissa Silverman (I-At large) acknowledged hurdles in aligning aspects of the legislation with federal law and determining whether DOES would absorb costs of administering funds allocated through the CARES Act.
Silverman’s office has since confirmed that DOES agreed to do so.
“What we are doing with this emergency legislation that we’re moving is turning on a different portion of this extended benefits program that would add seven weeks to get the UI benefits to 59 weeks and PUA to 46,” Silverman told The Informer in reference to the emergency program activated by the CARES Act in March for workers who are ineligible for conventional unemployment benefits.
“People who claimed the loss of income in January under the PUA program are hitting the 39-week limit. Since people started losing their jobs in March, the critical mass won’t be for another four or five weeks, but it will hit soon, she said.
Stimulus negotiations on Capitol Hill as of late have pitted Senate Republicans against President Donald Trump (R), who has expressed a desire to pass the legislation before the Nov. 3 election. Senate Republicans have pushed back against Trump’s proposal which includes a second stimulus check.
On Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) coaxed the White House to finalize language on a $2.4 trillion stimulus package, all while the Republican-controlled Senate gears up for a vote on a $500 billion stand-alone bill that Democrats initially blocked.
While recent unemployment figures showed a significant decrease in neighboring Maryland and Virginia, there have few signs of change in the District.
Between August and September, the District’s unemployment rate fell by less than one percent, with DOES reporting more than 150,000 unemployment claims since the pandemic started. Across the country, jobless claims have reached well beyond 880,000 in what experts describe as another telltale sign of an economy that’s slow to rebound.
Silverman and other council members have frequently recalled receiving emails and phone calls from constituents upset and surprised about the expiration of unemployment benefits.
An even greater concern, as expressed in a September 16 labor and workforce development committee hearing – enrollment isn’t automatic for unemployed District residents.
Since the rollout of UI and PUA benefits during the pandemic, legions of the unemployed have complained about spending an untold number of hours on the phone to secure their benefits, often to no avail.
During the latter part of September, DOES Director Dr. Unique Morris-Hughes said federal law prevents her office from facilitating that process. While speaking before the Council’s labor and workforce committee, she maintained that District residents seeking renewal of their UI benefits at the 26-week mark could do so with the help of more than 200 employees and contractors available to answer calls.
Other requests outlined in Silverman’s October 9 letter included a breakdown of UI and PUA claims by ward, and information about staffing levels at DOES, particularly bilingual staff and volunteer call takers.
DOES did not reply to The Informer’s inquiry about the correspondence and the degree to which the agency addressed Silverman’s concerns about automatic extension of UI benefits, back pay and the redetermination process.
Since the pandemic began, some residents like Kymone Freeman have used this once-in-a-lifetime event to advocate for institutional change which would benefit those historically marginalized. Though Freeman didn’t express opposition to the Unemployment Benefits Extension Emergency Act, he said that overture, and others before it, haven’t addressed the elephant in the room.
“They’re kicking the can down the road. Capitalism is on trial and what they’re not telling you is that there’s a confrontation between the haves and have nots,” said Freeman co-owner of We Act Radio.
“They’ll have to start giving universal basic income and cancel rent to stop the bleeding [but now] they’re trying to figure out how to salvage a system that’s gone and will never come back.”
“A crisis of this magnitude is beneficial to those in power but it’s creating [challenges] for the oppressed because you have to have this come-to-Jesus moment on whether America will work for everyone or no one.”