DC Council Budget Hearing Highlights Need to Expand Access to Unemployment Benefits
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UPDATE: On June 30, 2020, Legal Aid and other advocacy groups sent a letter to Councilmember Silverman following up on the issues we raised during the budget hearing, which are still ongoing. We requested a supplemental hearing for the Department of Employment Services (DOES) Office of Unemployment Compensation in the coming weeks to address these issues. You can read the letter here.

Last week, Legal Aid joined the Claimant Advocacy Program, First Shift Justice Project, Neighborhood Legal Services Program, the Public Justice Advocacy Clinic at the George Washington University Law School, and Whitman-Walker Health, to submit testimony to the DC Council’s Committee on Labor & Workforce Development regarding significant access issues with the provision of unemployment benefits during the COVID emergency.

Since the beginning of the public health emergency, over 100,000 DC workers have applied for unemployment benefits. We appreciate the extensive efforts that DOES is taking to process this extraordinary number of claims. With businesses shut and families staying home, UI is often the only source of income to pay rent, buy food, and purchase other necessities.

However, the number of people who have successfully applied for UI is an undercount of the total need, as significant flaws in the system have prevented a large number of DC workers, often the most vulnerable, from accessing these critical benefits. There are two major issues Legal Aid flagged for the Committee.

The first issue is application accessibility. For the standard unemployment application, which is only available online or over the phone, workers have told us about a variety of technical issues in trying to file their initial applications, with some trying repeatedly for weeks, but being unable to get through by phone or online. Students with the Public Justice Advocacy Clinic at the George Washington University Law School, as part of a research project into the issues at DOES, tried calling DOES 643 times between May 11 and May 15 and tracked the results. The infographics below illustrate the staggering problems with applying by phone.

The application for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA -- the temporary program for workers not eligible for standard UI -- is only available online, so there is not even an option to apply over the phone. Neither offers a mail-in or drop-off option. These limitations disproportionately harm DC workers with the fewest resources -- those without computers or internet access; those with family responsibilities who do not have the time to try calling DOES repeatedly; those who cannot afford the number of cell phone minutes required to wait for hours on the phone.

The second issue is language access. The application for standard benefits is only available in English and Spanish, and the PUA application is only in English. Both should be made available in all languages required by the DC Language Access Act. Legal Aid has received calls from speakers of Spanish, Amharic, and other languages seeking our assistance in getting past the language and technological barriers.

The chairperson of the Committee, Councilwoman Elissa Silverman, shared the frustrations of the workers who have been unable to access benefits due to these failings in the system. She emphasized that the DC government needs to put a focus on modernizing the UI system, stating: “I am going to be adamant about modernizing our UI system and making sure we have a system that is accessible and modern and can be used by our workers in the century they live in, not the last century.”

We applaud Councilwoman Silverman’s commitment, and encourage the Council as a whole to ensure that DOES receives the resources it needs to address these issues. More than two months into this public health emergency, with what may be a long road to recovery ahead, we need to make sure that all of DC workers have access to the resources they need to take care of themselves and their families.

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