Pandemic Unemployment Assistance in D.C. Likely to End After 39 Weeks


In less than a month, Andy’s unemployment benefits will run out. He is currently on week 36 of his Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), a program created under the federal CARES Act for independent contractors and other workers who are ineligible for traditional unemployment. In D.C., these workers get a minimum of $179 every week for a total of 39 weeks. 

“What program will D.C. be offering to people on PUA?” he asks. “What do they expect us to do? How do they expect us to pay our bills? How can we survive with $0? Winter is coming. It’s not going to get any easier.” 

Andy, who works in international development, saw his income drop to zero in mid-January as the coronavirus pandemic began to impact travel. Like so many residents, Andy found even applying for PUA to be a nightmare. He was forced to wait until late April—around the time when D.C. started accepting and paying PUA claims—and then would spend five hours on the phone whenever he called the D.C. Department of Employment Services. When he finally spoke to a representative, Andy says they could not resolve any of his application issues. He finally received his first payment in mid-May, and just received retroactive payments between then and Feb. 2, the first day claimants can backdate their benefits. He’s been using the money to pay for the essentials—food, rent, and health care. Now, he fears losing the benefit he worked so hard to get. (Andy is a pseudonym because he requested anonymity due to privacy concerns.)  

A DOES spokesperson says individuals receiving PUA cannot apply for the Extended Benefits program, which provides an extra 13 weeks of cash assistance. To be eligible for the 13-week extension, an unemployed individual first needs to qualify for traditional unemployment insurance, then exhaust that 26-week benefit along with a 13-week benefit through the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program. 

The spokesperson says D.C. is ultimately awaiting “further federal guidance on how to assist those whose benefits are running out.”

“This type of statement means that they don’t care about PUA claimants at all,” Andy says, after learning that he and others like him are ineligible for further aid once they reach the end of their 39 weeks. “They don’t realize that we are people and we deserve the same rights as everyone else during the pandemic.” 

Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of workers will be without any cash assistance very soon unless local or federal lawmakers act. Workers might not even learn that they’ve exhausted all their benefits until they stop receiving payments because DOES does not have the technical capability to personally notify claimants when their benefits are about to run out. PUA is set to expire Dec. 31. President Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday afternoon that he ordered his representatives to stop negotiating on a stimulus package until after the election. 

So far, it’s been a difficult road for 1099 employees—the city’s drivers, freelance journalists, contractors, and other self-made types. PUA claimants had to wait a month into the public health emergency before they could apply for benefits. Once cleared, they waited weeks for aid. Only 20 percent of PUA claimants were paid within the first 21 days as compared to 51 percent of claimants who filed for traditional unemployment, according to Aug. 1 claims, the most recent data available. DOES argues that the percentage is more than 20 percent if measured from the date when someone first applied for PUA, not traditional unemployment. That point is moot for a PUA claimant who has to apply and be denied for UI before they can apply for PUA. They still typically wait longer for help than those workers with W-2 forms. 

Because they filed their claims weeks, if not months, after they first became unemployed, many workers are owed a large amount of back pay. The exact number of people owed back pay is unclear, and DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes told the Council on Sept. 30 that the agency has not disaggregated how many people are awaiting retroactive payments from the total number of pending claims. Her department was unable to tell City Paper that figure either, or the total number of PUA claimants among the 142,254 total claimants as of Oct. 1.   

“We will look at every single person’s claim who requests back pay,” Morris-Hughes told the At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who chairs the labor committee. “I do think it is important to note that we do have to review and it does take time.” Morris-Hughes also told the committee that her department only has ten adjudication specialists designated to PUA claims, among the 60 total.    

Now, claimants see other states offering up to 46 weeks of PUA benefits while D.C. is not. In New York, for example, individuals receiving PUA benefits also do not qualify for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation or Extended Benefits but will automatically receive a seven-week extension. The DOES spokesperson explains that “approval for extended benefits comes from the Department of Labor.” 

“At this time, the District of Columbia has not received approval of these extended benefits but remains in discussions with the Department of Labor,” they add.  

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