For Uber driver Samba Ceesay, the pandemic has been a financial disaster. The 61-year-old Seattle-area resident hasn’t been able to drive professionally since this spring, but gets just $235 in weekly unemployment benefits. That’s about what he used to make in a single busy day of driving — and he now relies on family members to get by.

But things might have gone differently. Ceesay recently learned from other drivers that he may have been eligible for a benefit nearly three times larger — and he’s hoping to get the state Employment Security Department (ESD) to adjust his payments.

The extra money, which would include back pay, “would make a big difference,” Ceesay says, though he wishes he’d been paid correctly from the start. “Nobody ever told me,” he says.

Ceesay isn’t alone. Labor advocates say many unemployed workers in Washington and elsewhere aren’t getting their full benefits under an emergency federal program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA).

Enacted in March, PUA targeted the millions of workers nationwide who had lost income due to the pandemic but didn’t qualify for regular state unemployment. That includes many self-employed workers, contractors and other so-called gig-economy workers, along with those who worked part time before the pandemic.

PUA claimants are supposed to get a federal benefit similar to regular state unemployment benefits; in Washington, that’s around half a claimant’s regular income, up to a current maximum of $844 a week. Since March, ESD says, it has paid $1.14 billion in PUA funds to just over 282,000 PUA claimants. That’s around 27% of all Washingtonians who’ve received jobless benefits during the pandemic.

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But some labor advocates say the state’s total PUA payout should be as much as several hundred millions dollars higher.

At least half of all PUA beneficiaries in Washington state have only received the program minimum of $235 a week, according to ESD figures.

Agency officials say PUA claimants get the minimum if their net wages were less than $25,000 during their prior or “base” year. (The minimum for regular unemployment claimants is $201.)

But some PUA claimants receiving the $235 say their pre-pandemic income should have qualified them for more.

Joshua Welter, a spokesperson with Teamsters Local 117, says that of the thousands of Uber and Lyft drivers who have filed for unemployment in Washington, “almost all of them have faced this issue of not receiving full benefits.”

Many self-employed workers, freelancers, contractors and others also may have been underpaid, according to advocates and claimants.

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Maria, a professional photographer in Tacoma who asked that her full name not be published, says she never received her full PUA benefit after closing her studio last spring following Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order.

Maria says the ESD website estimated her weekly PUA payment at around $800, based on her prior year’s income. She immediately began receiving the $235 minimum, she says, and expected that to increase as soon as the ESD verified her income, which the website indicated “would take a few weeks,” she says.

But Maria says the payment never increased, despite repeated efforts to contact ESD about her concerns. Although Maria has since reopened her studio, the back benefits she believes she’s owed would be a big help after months of no income. “My business is now open, but I’m struggling to get it to the place it once was,” she says.

Anne Paxton, policy director at the Unemployment Law Project, a Seattle and Spokane advocacy group, thinks underpayment may be widespread among the many PUA claimants who received the minimum and estimates that potential underpayment could total more than $200 million. Washington state “may owe a lot of back benefits,” Paxton says, though she emphasizes that any funds owed are federal, not state.

ESD officials acknowledge that some PUA claimants probably have been underpaid — most likely because claimants failed to properly document their pre-pandemic income, which the agency uses to calculate benefits. (ESD officials say claimants who think they are being underpaid can provide additional documentation through the end of the year.)

But ESD officials are skeptical that the underpayment problem is as large as advocates suggest. “Some of the advocates are saying … that there’s a bunch of money being left on the table,” says ESD spokesperson Nick Demerice. “And we don’t know whether that’s true.”

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According to Demerice, there are currently between 11,000 and 13,000 PUA claimants who are still getting the minimum because their documentation didn’t match the income they claimed when applying; the agency has asked them to provide additional documentation.

Labor advocates say they don’t think ESD is intentionally withholding benefits, and they acknowledge that the agency is stepping up efforts to resolve underpayment issues. Advocates also note that many claimants may have made mistakes filing for PUA claims, which can be more complicated than regular claims.

That points to a deeper, structural issue: Many PUA claimants, by definition, don’t have the same formal relationship with employers, state agencies, or other elements of the work establishment that regular employees have, which can affect filing.

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For example, where most workers filing for unemployment have their prior year’s wage data on file at ESD, self-employed workers often must prove last year’s income by uploading tax returns and other documentation. (Data for many part-time workers is on file at ESD.)

Those extra steps become even more challenging for claimants lacking reliable internet access or English fluency. Nurayne Fofana, a driver and advocate with the Teamsters-affiliated Drivers’ Union, says many of the hundreds of drivers he has helped since March speak Somali, Amharic, Hausa, Oromo, Yoruba and other languages as their primary language.

Shakir Muhamad, 40, said his brother, Osman, helped him apply for unemployment benefits in April. But Osman accidentally left off the fact that Muhamad, who primarily speaks Burmese, drives for Lyft — a crucial component of the application. Finally in September, Muhamad called Fofana to help him fix his application. As of Tuesday, he was still waiting to receive benefits.

Another structural problem: Many PUA claimants may not even realize they’ve been underpaid. Because many PUA claimants, such as self-employed workers, have never applied for unemployment before, “they wouldn’t necessarily understand that the benefit should generally be about half of their average net weekly income,” says Paxton.

Advocates say underpayment also might have been less obvious due to the separate $600 weekly federal benefit that all beneficiaries received. When that benefit expired, in late July, advocates say that many claimants began contacting them about missing benefits.

Claimants have complained that the ESD website is often balky and that instructions aren’t clear. They also say that it has been extremely difficult to get through on the phone to the agency’s help desk.

Others say the agency’s requests for documentation can seem disorganized. Many ride-hail drivers who applied for PUA benefits got repeated requests for the same documents from different ESD personnel, says the Teamsters’ Welter. “Many applicants have had the experience of providing earnings documentation multiple times, only to be asked to provide the same documentation again,” Welter says. Some claimants simply give up, advocates say.

Another obstacle: Some companies that hire contractors don’t provide wage and other data directly to the ESD.

Uber and Lyft, for example, have for years resisted sharing data about their operations with government agencies. That’s meant that drivers often must search for and file individual payment stubs on their own — which means drivers may take longer to file claims and may be more likely to make mistakes. Representatives for the companies dispute that providing the data would speed up the process for drivers to receive benefits.

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These structural problems point to another issue: Because PUA claimants often don’t have wage data on file, it’s harder to ESD to proactively identify who might be underpaid, or even gauge the true scale of the problem.

That means PUA claimants themselves need to take the initiative. Demerice says the agency will review any newly submitted documentation and if merited, adjust benefits payments and pay any back pay. Demerice also notes that average weekly PUA payment amounts are rising — as of September, it was $323, up from $270 earlier in the pandemic — in part as the agency adjusts claimants’ benefits.

But for some claimants, that adjustment process can be painfully slow. Welter and Fofana say some drivers have waited months to get their claims adjusted. Some become so desperate for income, Fofana says, they simply give up trying to get their benefits adjusted and return to work despite generally poor business conditions: ride-hail drivers’ income is only a fraction of pre-pandemic levels, advocates say.

Worse, many gig-economy jobs come with a high risk of COVID-19 exposure.

That was a dilemma for Amadou Diallo, 48, who drives for Uber and Lyft. The Rainier Beach resident says he filed for benefits in April, and only received an adjusted weekly payment in late October. Long before then, however, Diallo had returned to his ride-hail job, despite misgivings over the health risks. “I was afraid to go back to work,” said Diallo. “But I [had] to — otherwise, I have no money.”

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