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Workers Defense League Sees Surge of Unemployed People Seeking Help Obtaining Benefits

New York, NY – The Workers Defense League has seen its fair share of unemployment insurance  (UI) cases, but after marking its 84th anniversary this year, the non-profit’s Executive Director Jon Bloom says there has been a surge in workers from all backgrounds and income levels requiring assistance. 

Jon Bloom conducts a recent UI workshop for the Professional Staff Congress.  Photo by Miriam Lewin.

“We work extensively helping workers get their unemployment insurance benefit,” says Bloom. “We represent people at hearings when they are denied their benefits and we also advise people who have questions and problems.”

The Department of Labor suspended hearings from March 15 to May 28, because of the coronavirus pandemic but the number of people seeking advice to get their benefits increased exponentially, according to Bloom. 

Workers who requested unemployment benefits before the pandemic usually had their applications processed within two to three weeks and received a response about their funds, but now they sometimes have to wait months.

Most people who are currently without work are unemployed because of the pandemic and had stopped working on March 15, basically when the shutdown happened, according to Bloom.

“There are thousands of people who haven’t been denied benefits, but haven’t received them, so we’ve been talking to people all day, every day, for the last four months and we’ve been contacting the Department of Labor on their behalf trying to resolve these problems,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of success, but it’s a painstaking process because each person’s claim is different.”

This time last year, Bloom would get an average of 20 calls a day from people whose benefits were held up for some unknown reason, but now he hears from up to 50 people a day asking for help. 

“There are complications with the UI system because the CARES Act of 2020 created a whole new parallel program of benefits called the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance,” says Bloom. “The PUA is really good because people who have insufficient recent earnings, or people who were self-employed, ordinarily would be denied outright and wouldn’t be able to qualify until they had more earnings.”

However, the PUA system has resulted in delays for some recipients. 

“The problem is that if people had enough earnings for UI and the earnings weren’t counted, they are disqualified from unemployment insurance and moved into the PUA system and given a lower weekly benefit rate,” Bloom says.

New York PUA recipients usually received the minimum PUA rate of $182/week, while those who qualified for unemployment insurance received up to $504/week, according to Bloom. 

“The Department of Labor uses your 2019 tax return and bases your rate on net earnings,” he says. “A lot of self-employed people don’t make that much money, so they get the PUA minimum.”

Many workers who had income from multiple recent jobs are finding that the Department of Labor is not counting all of them, according to Bloom. These workers are being moved into the PUA system, but should be qualifying for traditional UI.

“It is important to get the rate that you are entitled to,” says Bloom. 

Among those who have been hit hardest in this crisis are restaurant workers, according to Bloom.

“The restaurant industry is devastated and we have worked closely with UNITE HERE Local 100,” Bloom says. “We have also seen a lot of office workers, cab, actors and many others.”

The level of unemployment has been so staggering that some families with sometimes up to 10 family members have reached out to the WDL, which is unprecedented, according to Bloom. Occasionally, he has seen two to three family members reach out for their services at the same time. 

Bloom has also seen a surge of laid-off workers from unions including CWA Local 1101, Laborers Local 108, UAW Local 2110, DC 37 and PSC-CUNY, which posted a webinar conducted by the executive director on its website that explained UI rights and resources to adjunct professors.  

“Workers need advocates, and systems need intermediaries,” says Bloom. “It’s a form of empowerment. We try to make sure workers understand they have rights and how to exercise those rights.”

The Workers Defense League may be reached at 212-627-1931.

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