'The system's failed me': Behind the maddening delay of unemployment money in Delaware

Sarah Gamard
Delaware News Journal

Josh Santiago has worked as a chef at some of the top restaurants in Delaware — Grain in Newark, Tonic in Wilmington and, up until recently, Bardea.

But like thousands of food industry workers in the First State, the 33-year-old lost his job after Gov. John Carney ordered restaurants to stop allowing dine-in services in mid-March to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

His last day on the job on Monday, March 16 was unlike anything he'd ever experienced. Traffic had been dwindling the past week as news coverage escalated that the fast-spreading, potentially deadly virus had reached the East Coast. Workers were being sent home because of the lack of customers.

"It was eerie," he said. "Everybody was nervous, everybody was scared."

It got worse shortly after lunch. Santiago was getting ready for the second leg of his double shift and prepping the kitchen for dinner — setting up the pan for a charred octopus dish and setting up the salad station — when he and his co-workers learned restaurants had to close by 8 p.m. They closed the kitchen and took whatever perishable food they could, hoping they'd be back the next week.

"I went home with a bag of lettuce and a loaf of bread," Santiago said. "I had no idea I’d still be home four months later."

He filed for unemployment the next day. He's been waiting for his unemployment benefits ever since.

"I didn’t know what to expect; it was all very new to me," Santiago said. "And then all my co-workers started getting their stuff, so I knew there was something up."

That includes his wife, Megan, who lost her part-time job at Bardea. They've been relying on her $600 weekly benefit from the federal government and her $100 weekly benefit from the state to survive. Santiago's parents also help out by dropping off groceries and big boxes of diapers from Costco for the couple's 15-month-old daughter, Alivia.

They're still behind on rent, water, gas and electric. The only bill they have been able to keep up with, Santiago said, is for their phones. 

“People talk about how they think it’s unfair that people on unemployment are getting $600," Santiago said. "But $600 for a family of three just isn’t enough."

Between taking his daughter to the park and putting her down for naps, Santiago tries to repair his new reality. He's tried looking for another job through connections he's made across the restaurant industry since moving to the state in 2014, but with no success. In the meantime, he says he can't get answers on what's wrong with his unemployment claim.

Sometimes, when trying to get ahold of a representative at the Department of Labor's call center, he has given up after waiting on hold all day. Once he does get someone, he's told that there's a hold on his claim for a "security reason" and that the benefits are on their way. But he has yet to get the money, and he doesn't know what's wrong. When he asks to speak directly with the people handing his claim, he is told to just keep waiting.

Josh Santiago of Wilmington was laid off from his job as a restaurant chef at the start of Delaware's shutdown. He's still waiting for his unemployment benefits four months later.

"They didn’t really seem like they knew what was going on," Santiago said about one conversation he had with the call center. "They just couldn’t answer my questions; they didn’t know why there was still a hold on it."

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Every day he's unpaid and unemployed, he's hit with pangs of frustration, stress and depression.

"I get spells of anxiety throughout the day as I realize that I don’t know when I can go back to work," he said. "I don’t know when money’s coming. Of course, there’s a little bit of resolve in hoping that I’ll get what they told me they would give me to help me out. But of course, negativity kicks in. You don’t know when it’s going to happen, so you just get frustrated.”

"I do my part and do what they ask me," he added. "They have one job and they’re not doing it ... The system’s failed me.”

Unemployment claims processors work through cases at the Delaware Department of Labor in Newark Tuesday, July 28, 2020.

Santiago is one of many Delawareans who say they've been waiting weeks to months for their unemployment benefits after the coronavirus pandemic forced them out of a job. Delaware Online/The News Journal has received emails, calls and messages on social media from scores of people who say they filed for unemployment and have not been paid. 

Meanwhile, Facebook groups have attracted hundreds of Delaware workers who are struggling to navigate the system and trying to help each other through the confusion. Some say they have been waiting for months after receiving a letter from the department showing a monetary determination.

They're confused, stressed and increasingly impatient.

Some unemployed Delawareans have driven to government office buildings only to find that those buildings are closed to nonemployees. Some have followed the department's directions by sending emails that were met with an automatic reply, then silence. Some have called the telephone number listed at the bottom of mailed letters from the unemployment division only be kicked off the line.

In a scramble to help, the department set up a call center, which operates primarily out of Utah, about a month and a half into the pandemic for people to get their questions answered and resolve issues with their claims. That was followed by a live chat on the unemployment department's website, which was launched in early June.

Josh Santiago was laid off from his job as a restaurant chef at the start of Delaware's shutdown. He's still waiting for his unemployment benefits four months later. He's with his wife Megan and daughter, Alivia, at their Wilmington home.

But the system hasn't been perfected. Since the call center was launched, residents from across the state are still confused and frustrated. Many say they stay on hold for several hours before the call drops. If they're lucky, they hear a real human's voice after the hold music.

Once they do, the issue is sometimes fixed easily. Other times, questions still go unanswered, and the state Department of Labor says it's working through a growing number of claims that require extra time and verification before benefits can be doled out.

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One of the Delawareans who has struggled with uncertainty over the system is Angela Lewis, 34, of New Castle. A single mom, she's been out of work since the pandemic started to home-school and take care of her three children.

Lewis files every Sunday shortly before midnight, and is used to getting her benefits within two days — except one week in mid-July, when no money appeared.

Lewis said she eventually received her benefits about a week later after contacting the governor's office, but experienced a lot of stress and confusion when trying to figure out why she wasn't getting her benefits and why her claim was on hold.

She learned through Facebook that others like her had similar experiences that week because the Department of Labor, per the direction of the federal government, was no longer accepting unemployed applicants checking off "no" when asked if they were available and able to work during the pandemic.

Labor Secretary Cerron Cade said people have been misinterpreting the question and the department has been "lax" with it during the pandemic, but the federal government wants to make sure people are still able and available to work in order to receive benefits.

"Being unable to work does not mean that your place of business is closed, rather it means that you are physically or mentally unable to accept employment if it is offered," Cade said. "These would be people who are injured, on disability, or who may be experiencing other complications that would prevent them from accepting suitable employment."

The Labor Department has been working with the people who put the wrong answer to make sure they still get paid if they're eligible, according to Cade.

Lewis doesn't remember ever hearing about this rule. And after waiting on hold for hours to get in touch with a representative at the call center, and then chatting online with a virtual agent, she didn't feel the problem had been resolved. The money still wasn't there. Knowing that there's a backlog of unemployment benefits being issued on time, she didn't know when she would get her money that she relies on to cover her bills and groceries.

At the time, she had 13 cents in her bank account.

"A lot of people, we are dependent on this," said Lewis. “I'm really dependent on this payment every week."

There was nothing she could do except repeatedly check her bank account and hope the money would appear.

Since the spring, the Labor Department has been overwhelmed with a deluge of claims following business closures under Gov. John Carney's state of emergency order. The department has received more than 120,000 claims during the pandemic, reflecting about 103,100 people, according to data released by the department. More than 72,700 of those people have gotten unemployment benefits since the closures started, according to the department.

Unemployment claims processors work through cases at the Delaware Department of Labor in Newark Tuesday, July 28, 2020.

During the weeks before coronavirus was declared a public health threat in the state, Delaware was used to seeing around 500 unemployment claims per week.

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It's unclear when the thousands of other people who filed for unemployment will get paid. Some people may not be eligible for benefits even though they filed. Many of those still waiting for benefits have claims on hold because the department needs to investigate or verify something about the claim, such as exactly why the unemployed person is out of a job, according to the Labor Department.

"These claims aren’t clear-cut," said Labor Secretary Cade during an hourlong interview with Delaware Online/The News Journal. "I think everybody has an interpretation of unemployment sometimes as though it’s a program that’s solely based on ‘I’m hurting, I’m in need, and I’m supposed to collect this benefit.’ And I wish it were like that. But there are a whole lot of other requirements that overlay the need that have to be met in order for us to issue a benefit — even during the crisis."

But some people say they can't wait that long.

Richard Minter, 60, of Lewes, says he's had to leave his job because he can't afford to wait for his benefits. Minter was used to working 40 hours a week as a hospice worker. But since the pandemic, his hours have been whittled down to fewer than 20 hours a week. 

He applied for unemployment benefits for the first time in his life and got a letter in April from the unemployment division alerting him of his monetary determination. But the benefits never came, and he doesn't know why.

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"I’ve called every number that you possibly can call," Minter said. "I did everything that you’re supposed to do, and it just hasn’t worked."

Minter, who is getting help with his finances from his daughter, is worried about using up his savings before he eventually retires. He said he's leaving his job for a new one because he can't afford the reduced paycheck.

"I don’t understand why it’s been this longevity of not being able to compensate me," Minter said. “It’s been a total inconvenience as far as living because I’m not used to this … I’ve worked all these years, and I’ve never been on unemployment. Now, I filed for unemployment, and then it’s obsolete. They’re not there for me now.”

Despite getting a letter of monetary determination in the mail, many people who filed are still waiting because there may still be questions as to whether the person qualifies for benefits, according to Cade.

"We’ve been investigating those questions to determine whether or not these folks are actually qualified for benefits," Cade said. "Rather than being denied flat-out, they’re having to wait until the investigation carries itself out to be determined whether or not they actually qualify or they don’t. The other alternative is just to deny you ... And we just don’t think that that’s a reasonable response during the crisis."

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The vast majority of held claims are because there's a question as to how exactly the person became unemployed, Cade said.

"It’s almost like your car," Cade said. "If you’ve got a thousand cars in a parking lot that don’t work, asking a mechanic to say, ‘What should these people do about their cars that aren’t working?’ The mechanic’s going to say, ‘Well, I’ve got to lift the hood up on each one of them, because I highly doubt all of them are not working for the same reason.’ And that’s kind of the scenario that we’re in."

Linda Orlando, 76, of Bellefonte, wasn't used to filing for unemployment until this year, when she temporarily lost work at her job as a sales associate at Kohl's, where she's worked for more than two decades.

Orlando doesn't own any electronics besides her flip phone and landline, so her daughter helped sign her up for unemployment and helped her file each week on her computer. She had trouble fixing some errors she made with her claim early on, and struggled to get five weeks of delayed benefits. 

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She initially tried calling the Labor Department to resolve the error, but gave up after her blood pressure started spiking while she waited for someone to pick up.

"I’ve been trying to call in to get it straightened out and nobody answers," Orlando said during an interview before she received her benefits. "You just get the same recordings, the same recordings that lead nowhere."

Orlando has been able to return to work and said she eventually got her benefits after getting ahold of her state lawmaker for help. She relies on her job, Social Security and her late husband's pension to pay for gas, groceries and other expenses. She is turning 77 in August and thinking about retirement. For her, the loss of income was a lot of money.

"I don’t want to collect unemployment. I like to pay my own way," she said. “It’s just very frustrating when you’re trying to get through and you can’t. The longer it goes on, the more it’s harder to untangle and work out."

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Sometimes, the Labor Department has a hold on a claim because it is trying to get information from the employer, Cade said. If you’re told that your claim is under investigation, there’s not much that you can do other than wait for the investigation to carry itself out, Cade said.

The department plans to add more call center representatives and adjudicators to work on verifying claims within the next month or so, Cade said. The General Assembly passed a bill this year to hire more workers to handle unemployment insurance appeals.

"It’s hard to tell someone that it’s just going to take a little bit longer, given the number of people that we have that we’re trying to adjudicate," Cade said. "But that’s just the situation that we’re in."

How to talk to someone about your claim

A lot of residents who have filed for unemployment have issues with their claim and don't know how to get in touch with someone at the Department of Labor, especially because emails are going unanswered.

If you need to speak live with someone, you can reach the department's unemployment call center at these numbers:

  • (302) 368-6600
  • (302) 739-5461
  • (302) 856-5611

The call center is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The line will take you through several automated prompts before connecting you with a representative. Here are the instructions on how to reach a representative, according to the Department of Labor:

Q1: For English: Press 1

Q2: To continue: Press 2

Listen to the entire message. After that, you'll arrive at another menu.

Q3: For general questions: Press 2

Q4: If you have submitted your claim or have a general unemployment insurance question: Press 4 or 5

Listen to the entire message. At the end, it connects you to a representative.

Many residents have also reached out to their representatives in the General Assembly for help. You can find your lawmakers' contact information on Delaware Online/The News Journal's "Know Your Legislator" tool online.

Sarah Gamard covers government and politics for Delaware Online/The News Journal. You can reach her at (302) 324-2281 or sgamard@delawareonline.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard