The Houston Chronicle's Lydia DePillis reports on problems victims of Hurricane Harvey are having because of the normal delay in receiving disaster unemployment assistance.
This special brand of jobless benefits is available to working people who have lost time because their employers were affected by the storm. Eligibility is broader than for ordinary UI.
The Chronicle notes the delay problem occurs for regular unemployment claims as well. The best practice for working people, of course, is for businesses to pay workers for time lost because of flooding and for landlords to show some understanding. Many businesses, including the one highlighted in this article, appear to be doing exactly that, though a delay factor haunts that process as well. The article quotes Hany Khalil, Executive Director of the Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation:
The eviction notice showed up on Steven Calhoun's door on September 6.
He wanted to pay his rent, but he couldn't after losing five days of work as prep cook and a week's pay because of Hurricane Harvey. His best hope was disaster unemployment assistance, a program to help people who temporarily lose work as the result of natural disaster, but more than two weeks after he filed a claim with the Texas Workforce Commission, he's still waiting.
"What am I gonna do?" thought Calhoun, 31, who moved to Houston from Milwaukee earlier this year. "This is the first time this has ever happened to me."
Calhoun is among an estimated 125,000 workers displaced by Hurricane Harvey who have filed for unemployment assistance provided as part of federal disaster relief - most, if not all of whom are still waiting for help. The Texas Workforce Commission, unprepared for the deluge of claims, said it doesn't know how many claims, if any, have been paid yet.
"People haven't been able to get through the system, and that in itself is a huge problem," says Josephine Lee, an organizer with El Pueblo Primero, a program based at San Pablo Episcopal Church in Southeast Houston that serves mostly Latino immigrants.
In order to address the demand, the Workforce Commission said it is hiring 80 more people to process phone calls and has extended its service hours to 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Governor Greg Abbott on Wednesdayalso waived the waiting period for benefits, which usually delays payment for the first week of a worker's unemployment.
"Our agency has been working diligently to respond to the needs of those who have lost their livelihoods and much more in some cases," said Lisa Givens, a spokeswoman for the Workforce Commission.
But for workers like Calhoun who live on thin margins, those checks often don't come through quickly enough to save them from financial hardship. Calhoun earns $10 an hour working for OTG, a New York food service contractor at Bush Intercontinental airport.
While at home in the first few days after the storm, Calhoun applied for benefits online, hoping for a turnaround before his apartment complex's grace period was up. (Reached by phone, an assistant manager for the Sedona Pointe apartments said they would not be evicting people impacted by the storm this month, but Calhoun says that's not what he was told.)
Days went by, and no help came. Calhoun applied for every other source of aid he could think of, from FEMA to the Red Cross, but they were all reserved for people whose homes were damaged, and the unemployment assistance claim kept showing up as pending. Calhoun tried to stay calm, knowing that stress could trigger his epilepsy.
"How is this fair to us?" Calhoun says. "How is this fair to anybody here who's been affected?"
Navigating the unemployment insurance system can be difficult even under normal circumstances, when Texas receives 30,000 or 40,000 claims a month. Texas pays only 79 percent of its claims within 14 days, which is below the federal standard of 87 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Hany Khalil, executive director of the Texas Gulf Coast Labor Federation, said he'd like to see the process streamlined and the deadline for applying - which is now Sept. 29 - extended to accommodate those who'd had trouble getting through.
"The response of Houston during the hurricane was one of enormous generosity," says Khalil. "We didn't ask, 'do you really need help to get out of this flooded zone?' Our government needs that same spirit."...
On Wednesday, after being contacted by a reporter, OTG said it would be paying all its workers for lost time during the hurricane. Employees were then notified that the extra money would be included in their next paychecks, at the end of the week. "No crewmember will lose a dime in their paycheck because of Hurricane Harvey," said Eric Brinker, the company's vice president for experience.
But for Calhoun, it wasn't soon enough. On Thursday, he took out a $1,000 auto title loan in order to pay his rent before the landlord added on any more fees. After that, other bills await.
"There's a lot of people in this situation," Calhoun says. "They're trying their best to hold it together."