‘Thoughts and prayers do not pay bills…’
West Virginia workers facing unemployment struggle to receive financial assistance
Across the country, working-class Americans, seemingly abandoned by the federal government, are struggling to deal with the financial fallouts of the coronavirus pandemic. In West Virginia, many workers have been left confused and unable to pay their bills as they anxiously await the arrival of missing unemployment checks.
“I have two boys starting college in the fall and need to make payments for rooms, and I have all my bills waiting to be paid,” Renee Daugherty Summers, a West Virginia worker, said. “We are stressing. It’s been six weeks, and we are still waiting for help. I have nothing coming in and the funds are really low — almost nothing.”
Summers is a self-employed cosmetologist who also works for a nursing home in West Virginia. She said she has been unable to work since March 12 but has not been able to file a weekly claim.
“I have tried all day to contact WorkForce, but nothing, of course,” Summers said. “I would just like reassurance that I did nothing wrong when I signed up. I also saw yesterday that they were going to back pay from March 29, but what about the other two weeks I was off? I guess that’s nothing to them.”
Summers said the process of filing for unemployment and the state’s unresponsiveness have been shocking.
“This is unbelievable for all of us who need to pay bills and have not received anything, and, like me, have tried to talk to someone and been put on hold for four hours and still nothing,” she said.
Clark K., a West Virginia small business owner who preferred to be identified as such, said the state’s recent handling of unemployment claims seems unfair.
“It’s ridiculous. We may not be employed by a company who pays into unemployment insurance, however, we do still pay taxes,” she said. “Here we are, some of us going on six weeks without help. Why are we paying taxes when we are left begging for help time and time again?”
Clark K. said those in positions of power in the state have been mostly unresponsive when residents require assistance to receive their earned benefits.
“West Virginia claims to appreciate the small businesses and the people here, however, it makes no sense that the ones in charge are not giving timely information,” she said. “Thoughts and prayers do not pay bills, feed children or provide medical care. To ask or demand that people ‘be patient’ or ‘hold tight’ is a slap in the face.”
Michelle Welsh, an independent contractor who does contract work with Grubhub, said she was forced to stop working when schools closed because her two children are too young to stay home alone. She said she also is struggling to make sense of the state’s handling of the current unemployment crisis.
“There are people who filed in April getting approved and paid within a week of filing while others have been waiting since March,” Welsh said.
Welsh said she filed for unemployment benefits more than six weeks ago but still has not received any help.
“We did not have guidance with PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance),” she said. “We thought we should file through unemployment, so I did. The unemployment office used W-2 wages from two years ago even though I’m self-employed. I have tried to tell them this.”
Welsh said the unemployment office then placed her on a deputy’s hold because she quit a job two years ago before becoming self-employed. She credited Del. Evan Hansen (D-Monongalia, 51) with helping her apply for PUA, but she said she still has not received a response.
“But still nothing — no emails or anything,” she said.
Welsh said the PUA application was confusing and difficult to make sense of. She said it asked her to file unemployment information despite her being self-employed. But the troubles did not end there.
“Then at the end of the application, it said it would take 21 days to get approval and to be sure to file a weekly claim,” she said. “Well, we can’t. It says [the application] is not available for a few weeks.”
Welsh said she does not think she will be repaid for the several weeks of unemployment benefits she should have received.
“I feel like I will never be paid nor ‘made whole’ as [some state officials] have said,” she said. “I’m sorry, but to check three verifications that we submit should not take two weeks. That’s honestly an hour worth of work because we do all the uploading and calculating of our quarterly earnings. I’m tired of being told to be patient and wait.”
Sandra Radabaugh is a traveling CNA who also said she lost childcare since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and unemployment crisis. She said she filed for unemployment benefits six weeks ago but still has not received a response.
“I’ve been told by numerous people to just go back to work,” Radabaugh said. “They don’t understand it’s not an option. I can’t pack my two kids up, travel to a different state and set them up in childcare. Even though I’m considered an essential employee, childcare won’t take new out-of-state children, or they have waiting lists.”
Radabaugh said there is nowhere near her home that she could work even if she was able, because her area only has two daycare centers between three counties, and all of the centers are either full or unable to work during the hours she requires help.
“It’s sad,” she said. “It’s just a miserable time right now.”
A source who preferred not to be named said her husband who works in residential construction applied for unemployment after getting sick, but he still has not received any benefits.
“All this started while he was off work due to having pneumonia,” she said, “He went back to work just to be told that a co-worker’s wife had been exposed due to being in health care, so he was tested for COVID and thankfully was negative. That was March 31. We went ahead and applied for unemployment because with his chronic lung issues, he cannot risk being exposed to this virus. He is able to file weekly claims and received a debit card and paperwork, but we have still not received a dime.”
The source said she is thankful her employer has continued to pay her full-time despite her only working part-time, but she and her family require further financial assistance to make ends meet. However, actually acquiring such assistance has been seemingly impossible.
“We are greatly in need of his income, and he has spent hours trying to get a person on the phone for help, but the recording says there is a wait time and then it hangs up. The local office is just a busy signal,” she said. “I’m just sharing our story because we are not alone in this struggle, and for every one story shared there are most likely 50 more not being shared. I know we are some of the lucky ones because we do have my income, but we are having a hard time keeping up with monthly bills. I know so many people who are having a harder time than us.”
Douglas Harding can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.