Devonte Brooks, a former retail associate, recently received unemployment benefits after waiting for nearly five months.
As the pandemic took hold this spring, Destinie Jackson watched her hours dwindle to nothing at the Ellicott City childcare center where she worked. She applied for unemployment insurance and was soon getting $610 each week.
Looking for work, she took a job with Amazon, but, because she was worried about contracting COVID-19, she quit after one shift. Reporting the work froze her benefits, and she needed to contact the state office to unfreeze them.
"[I'd have] to wait until I received a letter in the mail for a phone interview from Maryland so they can approve my benefits," she says.
Jackson hasn't received that letter. She's called the Maryland Division of Unemployment Insurance more than 20 times and sent them dozens of emails. She's emailed Maryland Secretary of Labor Tiffany Robinson and Gov. Larry Hogan. She's overdrawn her checking account and borrowed money from friends. She's worried about getting evicted from her Baltimore home.
"I have five dollars and 90 cents in there," Jackson says of her savings account.
Jackson's story — the lost job, the confusion over paperwork, the tension of waiting for relief that never seems to arrive, no matter how many hours she spends on the phone — is one many people have experienced this summer. Several months into a brutal economic crisis, many out-of-work and underemployed D.C.-area residents are still waiting on much-needed relief.
It's nearly impossible to quantify just how many people's claims have fallen into this kind of limbo. Some applications have been frozen because of paperwork errors. Some are delayed for reasons never explained to applicants. And some claims never get filed, as applicants wait on hold or deal with unresponsive or out-of-date websites. The offices that administer unemployment benefits in D.C., Maryland and Virginia did not return requests for comment for this story.
Unemployment offices throughout the country have been overwhelmed by a deluge of claims. More than 28 million people — including more than a half-million in D.C., Maryland and Virginia — were receiving benefits as of August 1. To field the claims, some states, including Maryland, have hired additional staff. But delays remain, and can breed dire consequences for workers in the short and long-term: unpaid bills, soaring debt, increased stress (augmenting the existing stress of being out of a job) and, in some cases, eviction and homelessness.
Many have been waiting for months, and they can't afford to wait much longer.
Harmon Ellis is a longtime hospitality worker and Navy veteran who says he's not sure how he'll be able to afford bills after this month.
'It Is Death Valley'
Harmon Ellis spends a good chunk of his waking hours on the phone each day, trying to sort out the damage caused when he checked one seemingly innocuous box on an unemployment form.
Like many others in the hospitality industry, Ellis, 42, hasn't worked since the onset of the pandemic. The Alexandria-based bartender and Navy veteran was laid off from a D.C. restaurant on March 15 and began receiving unemployment benefits soon after. But in early June, the payments stopped.
To continue getting unemployment benefits, applicants must submit a claim every week. In D.C., the continued claim form includes questions about an applicant's physical and mental ability to work. Ellis's doctor put him on bed rest for sciatica in June, so Ellis checked the box saying he wasn't available for work that week.
"I thought I was doing the right thing," he says.
By checking the box, Ellis froze his payments. Unfreezing them has been a byzantine, and so far unsuccessful, ordeal.
The D.C. Department of Employment Services (DOES) gave Ellis the number for a claims examiner (someone who determines an applicant's eligibility for benefits). He called "dozens and dozens" of times for weeks before learning the examiner no longer worked for DOES. Ellis now spends two to four hours on the phone each day with the department.
"It is Death Valley," Ellis says. "It is No Man's Land." He describes waiting on hold until 4:30 p.m.: The music changes and an operator picks up the call and says they'll need to forward his request to a supervisor, who has left for the day.
"It's beyond frustrating. I'm getting to the point now where I'm starting to get bills that are going in collections, I'm running through savings, credit cards. And I'm starting to check off certain utilities and things, like, 'OK, what can I live without?'"
The endless hold times are a result not only of the flood of applicants (some 138,000 unemployment claims have been filed in D.C. since March 13), but also the aging infrastructure behind the unemployment system. A product of the New Deal, unemployment insurance is a nearly century-old system administered by states and funded by a combination of state and federal taxes paid by employers. While there are federal guidelines states must follow, they each administer aid through systems of their own design.
Systems vary widely across states, D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. And as unemployment has reached levels not seen since the Great Depression, officials have "discovered that their systems, like the actual computer systems [and] the people sitting at desks, are completely and utterly unprepared for the avalanche of claims," says Drew DeSilver, a senior writer with the Pew Research Center.
While an issue like Ellis's might be easy for a claims examiner to fix, it still requires Ellis to be able to connect with an examiner. In the meantime, he says he's been rationing the benefits he received earlier this summer for a "rainy day." But it's been raining for a while.
"By the end of August, it looks like I will have exhausted my funds," he says. "So I'm kind of entering panic mode at this point."
While Devonte Brooks waited for his unemployment benefits, he applied for several jobs, dipped into his savings and accrued credit card debt.
'Two Weeks' Turned Into Five Months
For Devonte Brooks, getting unemployment benefits has been a months-long journey filled with uncertainty and mounting debt.
Brooks, a 22-year-old George Mason University alum, was laid off in March from his job as a stock associate at a D.C. Nordstrom Rack. When he applied for benefits, a DOES representative told him he hadn't yet made enough at the store to qualify (D.C., like many jurisdictions, requires a base period of work as part of its eligibility guidelines).
After several weeks and many, many phone calls, Brooks was eventually asked to submit paperwork from his prior employer, a Virginia sporting goods store, to see if he would qualify.
"I did that, and [DOES] said, 'Yeah, you're going to get them in two weeks,'" Brooks says. "Two weeks go by, I called again. They said the same thing, 'Yeah, two weeks, two weeks.'"
Two weeks became 20. Brooks finally began receiving unemployment in early August. Over that near half-year of waiting, Brooks did everything he could think of to help keep his family afloat.
Brooks lives in a studio apartment with his grandmother, mother and brother (the latter two of whom work), and says it was difficult not being able to contribute to the household coffers. To try to ease some of the burden, Brooks applied for jobs at drug stores and grocers. He leaned on financial help from a mentor he'd met in high school. He racked up debt on his credit cards and drew down his savings account. The benefits, though delayed, made an immediate difference.
"Not having to see my grandma or my mom struggle has really been the biggest thing for me, being able to give money to them when they need it," Brooks says.
Brooks is now able to pay down some of his debt and start saving again. But it could take a long time to recover from the hit he took while waiting.
The extra $600 per week that the CARES Act injected into benefits expired last month, and several states (including Maryland and Virginia) are applying for new federal funding that would temporarily give unemployed residents an extra $300 per week. With that extra benefit cut in half, an already bleak job market could grow bleaker; in a recent study from the Economic Policy Institute, the drop in benefits, and thereby consumer spending, could yield a loss of 2.6 million jobs in the next year. And unemployment recipients who watch their benefits shrink may continue to accrue debt.
Brooks expects he'll find work eventually, but he's worried about peers who have neither a job nor unemployment benefits. New college graduates, many of them saddled with staggering student loan debt (Brooks has about $30,000 himself), are now contending with a 17% unemployment rate.
"I actually have a lot of friends who are going into their senior year or graduating this fall and really haven't been able to find a type of job or internship because a lot of places aren't open or they already have spots filled up," he says. "It's not really about me who I'm worried for, it's about my friends and people who are trying to find something to live [off of]."
Sara, a onetime marketing professional, is still waiting for her benefits after getting filing assistance from a D.C. Councilmember's office.
'Like They Make It So Complicated On Purpose'
For some, just getting into the unemployment system is as much an exercise in politics as it is a lesson in bureaucracy. Sara, a 25-year-old marketing professional, only got into the system after reaching out to local representatives for help.
The D.C. resident, who asked that we not use her last name while she looks for jobs, moved out of her parents' basement in Arlington and into an apartment in the District in February.
"I really wanted to be independent, to be on my own. That was a big deal," Sara says.
Her employer, a D.C. trade association, laid her off in early May. As soon as she got the news, she headed to the DOES unemployment website to try to submit an initial claim. As backup, she dialed the office and kept the phone at her side, waiting for someone to pick up.
"I tried to apply for the entire month of May, every single day online, and it didn't work," she says.
The city has spent millions on a years-long effort to overhaul the D.C. unemployment website — to little avail. The nearly two-decade-old site isn't mobile-friendly, relies on outdated coding language and works best with Internet Explorer, a browser that's on its way out.
When her online application didn't go through after repeated tries, DOES representatives told Sara to try applying during non-peak hours. She tried to submit her claim at 2 a.m. (she says she doesn't sleep much these days). She had no luck then either.
Sara then reached out to her local advisory neighborhood commissioner, who put her in touch with Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau. Nadeau's office connected her with a DOES representative, who helped her submit the claim in late May. But even after filing, things haven't gone smoothly.
In June, Sara was told there was a holdup due to a one-time severance she received from her employer. In early August, she was told she'd start receiving benefits. She still hasn't seen them.
"It's been three months that I've been dealing with this, and it's just exhausting. It's like they make it so complicated on purpose, it feels like," Sara says. "If I hadn't taken all this effort as to contact the council woman and my ANC, to go through all these other channels ... it wouldn't have gotten resolved.
Technology is a key barrier to accessing benefits, says National Employment Law Project executive director Rebecca Dixon. Both Maryland and Virginia, she says, have claims systems that date back to the 1980s. Updates might help many people in the region get benefits more quickly.
"A state with a newer system technically should be able to be more nimble and implement lots of modern customer-centered design that makes their payment process move more swiftly," Dixon says.
The other major barrier to benefits, Dixon says, is state politics. While contacting a lawmaker helped Sara file her claim, Dixon says politicians in other states have made the process of getting benefits harder.
"A state can have an updated system, like Florida has an updated system that was updated just a few years ago, but the politics in the state were such that the administration didn't really want people to get UI payments," Dixon says. "And so they're designing their system to basically be impenetrable for claimants."
Barriers created by complex technology systems and politicized eligibility requirements can mean huge differences in the number of unemployed people who are enrolled; in March, nearly 66% of out-of-work Massachusetts residents received benefits while less that 8% of unemployed Florida residents did, according to a Pew Research Center study. And differences across states disproportionately impact Black residents; race, Dixon says, is "structurally built" into the way policymakers build the programs.
"Fifty-five percent of Black folks live in the South. And so we know that the Southern states have the lowest benefits amounts, the hardest standards to actually qualify for benefits, and often their systems of application are really hard to navigate," Dixon says. "If you actually were to overlay the states that have less generous benefits and harder systems with what the slave map was from 1865, you would get a lot of overlap."
Updating the unemployment system will take time and money. States would need investment from the federal government to support the modernization of unemployment systems, with a focus on the user experience. In the short term, Dixon says, the feds could use a system that's in place for natural disasters, when an additional unemployment insurance program is "activated" and welcomes in new sets of claimants who don't typically qualify for UI.
"They made the choice during Hurricane Sandy, the states did, to actually go ahead and process the claims and then verify the income information later," she says. "So there are choices that states can make to make it easier for folks to get their money more quickly."
Dixon also suggests basic technological changes such as providing speedier ways to reset passwords and offering auto-save so an online applicant's work isn't lost.
In the meantime, area residents who are waiting on their benefits must make do with an exceedingly insufficient system while getting by on a patchwork of savings, credit cards and help from their personal network.
Ellis, the bartender whose benefits are still frozen, says this is a struggle for someone who has been "independent" all his adult life.
"I've worked in this industry for a long time, I was a military veteran, and the one time that you need assistance it's very frustrating because I keep feeling like I'm getting run around in circles," he says.