A Failed Stress Test: The Pandemic Exposes the D.C. Government’s Failure to Distribute Unemployment Benefits to People in Need
The COVID-19 pandemic caused many District of Columbia residents to lose their jobs and erased years of employment progress. In February 2020, just before the pandemic began, the District’s unemployment rate fell to a five-year low of 4.9 percent. Two months later, unemployment had more than doubled to 11.1 percent. Some of the people who lost their jobs have since found new jobs, but not nearly enough: As of May 2021, the unemployment rate was still 7.2 percent. Even worse, the District’s government has failed to ensure that people who lose their jobs receive the unemployment benefits to which they are entitled; those failures became especially conspicuous when the federal government expanded unemployment benefits during the pandemic.
For many eligible people, the resulting loss of unemployment benefits has been devastating. Claimants have relied on unemployment aid to pay for food, rent, and other essentials; without the aid they may be forced to move elsewhere and they may lack secure access to food. The effects were especially severe for racial minorities. Even after the expanded unemployment benefits have expired, the District’s unemployment system remains dire.
In March 2020 and again in March 2021, Congress expanded and enhanced unemployment benefits for people who have lost their jobs; the latter bill extended pandemic-related unemployment benefits until September 4, 2021. But these benefits did not claim themselves—getting them benefits required meeting various requirements, providing documents and other information, and filing weekly claims on the internet or over the phone. Needlessly complex even under the best of circumstances, the claims process imposed even more hurdles because the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DOES) did not manage this process smoothly or efficiently. And so as of May 2021, one in five filers—more than 13,000 District residents—had not received all the benefits they were due.
Although the pandemic certainly didn’t help, DOES’s systemic issues predated COVID-19. The department’s online claims portal is outdated and has long suffered from bugs and glitches. More remarkably, in the year 2021—nearly fifteen years after Steve Jobs introduced the original iPhone—the DOES claims portal works only with desktop computers or laptops and not with smartphones. Even after the federal government provided funds, in 2012, to help DOES modernize its claims system, work on the new system did not begin until 2016; the department then missed its 2018 deadline to unveil the new website. Nine years and $9 million later, District residents are still wrestling the old, outdated system for filing claims. Unemployed people who cannot afford a personal computer must instead call DOES and possibly spend hours talking to workers who often do not understand the details of the different unemployment programs and provide information that is inconsistent or incorrect.
DOES also fails people who do not speak English. Non-English speakers often experience long waits on the phone for interpreters and struggle to complete forms that are not printed in their native languages.
These problems worsened during the pandemic. For example, it took DOES more than three weeks to update its systems to reflect the expansion of unemployment benefits. Many eligible District residents received less money each week than they were due. For others, the department took more than six months to distribute Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which aided workers who were ineligible for regular unemployment insurance.
Yet more problems plagued the department’s distribution of Pandemic Unemployment Emergency Compensation, which provided extended benefits for workers who exhausted their regular unemployment benefits. Some filers waited for weeks or months for DOES to begin paying these benefits, only to be told—without any written decision or notice of appeal rights—that they were ineligible and must apply for regular benefits in Maryland or Virginia. Others received money initially but were later told by DOES that their benefits had been provided mistakenly and must be returned.
In response, the D.C. Council heard testimony from several public-interest organizations, which highlighted both the problems and the need for specific remedies—including expanded language access, better training of DOES employees, specific updates from DOES about how its expanded staff will hasten claims processing, and a Council-appointed official to oversee the department’s transition to a modern website. In addition, the Office of the Inspector General has begun auditing DOES. Yet in response to closer scrutiny, DOES’s director has resisted many of these criticisms, pointing to the 80 percent of the benefits that have been processed and predicting that the new online filing system would be ready in another eighteen months.
We are far away from solving District’s unemployment-insurance crisis—a crisis that ultimate affects people’s health, safety, and lives. Although advocates have been organizing to promote reforms and the Council’s oversight may produce modest improvements, the need for change remains urgent.