Local workers in heavily affected industries continue struggling with unemployment

Media Credit: Danielle Towers | Staff Photographer

For many workers in the District, navigating overloaded state unemployment insurance systems proved to be a difficult task.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first reached the District, businesses scrambled for support.

Many businesses laid off workers, while others closed temporarily and applied for government assistance. But those same issues are continuing to plague local businesses, as continued closures and delays in receiving financial benefits deepen workers’ struggles.

Sidney Lee | Graphics Editor

The District’s unemployment rate jumped to 7.3 percent during fiscal year 2020 after remaining at 5.6 percent the year before, as the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted closures and layoffs across the city, according to last month’s report from the D.C. Office of the Chief Financial Officer. Unemployed workers in Foggy Bottom said they’ve struggled to obtain unemployment benefits and find new jobs in the area, citing a lack of District and federal government assistance.

Trupti Patel – a member of the Foggy Bottom and West End Advisory Neighborhood Commission and lead D.C. organizer for One Fair Wage, a national nonprofit advocating for workers’ rights – said 150 to 200 Foggy Bottom workers are currently unemployed because of a lack of business demand to recruit workers. She said between 50,000 and 75,000 workers have been indefinitely laid off across D.C. in the hospitality industry, a sector accounting for 1,000 jobs in Foggy Bottom and the West End.

“It’s been tough,” Patel said. “People have felt embarrassed, humiliated and ashamed to talk about their plight to survive in an industry that has been part of the economic vitality of our commission.”

The CFO’s report states unemployment claims in the District have slightly dipped since August, down to about 65,000 in December after peaking in July at about 87,000. The hospitality, business services and education industries have been hardest hit by the economic effects of the pandemic, according to the report.

Laid off from her bartending job at the onset of the pandemic, Patel said her former employer operated with about 100 workers before the pandemic but currently only employs 20.

Patel said some workers were ineligible to receive unemployment benefits because of wage theft from employers’ incorrect fillings or wages they received from multiple states, disqualifying them from in-state benefits. She said the District’s failure to upgrade its IT infrastructure that operates the city’s unemployment system has worsened struggles for local workers.

Patel and other ANC members voted for the D.C. Department of Employment Services to reform its unemployment insurance system last May when the website was flooded with applications for benefits. She also helped fundraise more than $30,000 for unemployed restaurant workers last spring with the D.C. chapter of ROC United, an organization advocating for workers’ rights.

“What has been difficult is trying to get people help,” she said. “It’s the fact that we have not made information easily available and easily accessible in multiple languages, among multiple platforms.”

Patel said a lack of awareness has worsened the ongoing issue, and she’ll continue fighting to connect workers with their “rightfully entitled” unemployment benefits, like insurance, food stamps and Medicaid. She said the District should ensure people receive their benefits in “a timely fashion” to help them recover financially.

Patel called the application process for unemployment benefits “traumatizing” and “difficult,” citing low staffing and a failure to spread information across more languages and platforms.

“We have no empathy and no sympathy for anyone who has lost their job through no fault of their own, and we need to address this from a humanitarian aspect versus a utilitarian aspect, which is very cold and dehumanizing,” she said.

Patel said The River Inn and Melrose Georgetown Hotel in her district “drastically” reduced their staffs and closed their restaurants and bars because of the pandemic. She said five to 10 staffers at each location lost their jobs, while local restaurants lost their clientele base.

“Just in my single-member district alone, we could be facing empty storefronts, empty hotels if this continues to be a pervasive problem,” she said.

John Kilker, a former full-time bartender at Cafe Deluxe, said losing his job last March was “shocking,” and he later “briefly” worked as a pollster for the AFL-CIO from mid-September to Election Day. He said he currently has enough savings for basic necessities like meals but has experienced three-week delays in receiving his unemployment relief from the federal government since September.

“When I initially called unemployment to file, it took me several days to reach anybody, and I just kept my phone next to me with the speaker on and stayed like that for eight hours a day and no one picked up,” he said.

Kilker said he didn’t earn enough money from his job working as a pollster in Virginia to be eligible to receive federally granted benefits.

“I reached out to one person who was helpful,” he said. “He pointed me in the right direction. Once I got there though, the next person wasn’t as receptive.”

Kilker said finding a new job feels like walking “between safety and financial security” because of the pandemic. He said he hopes for a more “efficient” unemployment system to be “proactive” in maintaining technical operations once the pandemic is over.

“When we get out of this pandemic, we get out of our current situation, we have to look and be proactive instead of just being reactive, because I think what we’ve seen is that when we react, when the situation’s present, there’s not enough time,” he said. “And then the people are the ones who are really going to suffer.”

A former restaurant waitress, who requested anonymity for future employment reasons, said she was laid off last March following the virus outbreak and has remained without a job for nearly a year. She said a family member and a friend passed away during the pandemic, adding to the emotional toll of the past year.

The worker said she’s since struggled to maintain financial security while trying to find a new job and pay off her debts.

She said she waited for 26 weeks of unemployment to receive her first benefits but never received help from the Virginia unemployment office. She said she made several attempts to contact the office in the past three months about the lack of assistance.

“It’s hard too,” she said. “You can speak to nobody. It’s only sit or call back right now. If customer service is busy, call back again.”

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