Justin Samuels, 44, was living in Malaga, Spain when the Covid pandemic hit. The freelance writer is fighting for unemployment benefits in New York.
Justin Samuels was living abroad in Malaga, a Spanish port city in the south of the country, on the Costa del Sol, when the chaos of the pandemic began to unfold.
It has resulted in a protracted struggle for unemployment benefits – a situation many Americans were stuck in overseas in the early days of the health crisis.
The 44-year-old Samuels, a dual citizen, moved with his mother to the Mediterranean city more than two years ago. She had a brain tumor and her surgeon recommended therapy that was not available in the United States
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Samuels, a PhD student at the University of Malaga, had earned income from performing as a freelance writer in the United States. When that work dried up in March last year, he applied for unemployment.
But the New York Department of Labor denied his claim. Attempts are now being made to reclaim payments in excess of $ 5,000 that the state believes were made in error.
I didn’t come back because I didn’t want to get sick.
Double US-Italian citizen living overseas
Samuels and others like him are caught between two competing and confusing forces: a government requirement that workers be physically present and able to work in the US to rack up unemployment and a virus that made travel impossible and unsafe.
“All Americans who go overseas don’t stop being Americans,” Samuels said. “I think the DOL is trying to criminalize us for being out of the country.”
Deanna Cohen, a spokeswoman for the New York Department of Labor, did not respond to that particular claim.
“To protect New Yorkers and our unemployment system from fraud, the law requires New Yorkers to be in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands when applying for and certifying benefits,” Cohen said.
The agency must also obtain specific documents from workers to determine if they are eligible for benefits, she added. The speed of the payout depends on how quickly New Yorkers send that information, she said.
Adriana Marian was trapped in Romania when she was released. She waited until September for benefits, but received no reimbursement.
By early April last year, the U.S. had repatriated about 40,000 Americans stranded overseas due to pandemic lockdowns and restrictions on air travel.
But some citizens weren’t so lucky.
Adriana Marian, 46, an office manager at a doctor’s office, was fired while visiting Romania because of a family emergency. She couldn’t return until September.
Brahim O., 34, lost his job as a cafeteria cook when he was stuck in Morocco visiting his family. (He asked that his full name not be used for privacy reasons.)
In either case, their state employment agencies – Missouri and Massachusetts, respectively – began paying unemployment benefits when they returned to the United States. Now, however, they are struggling for a refund worth thousands of dollars that would help cover overdue bills and loans from friends.
Brahim received an eviction notice in October after an eviction moratorium in Massachusetts ended. So far he has been able to stay in his house. But Brahim has still not been called back to work. He has a hearing on Monday to try to reverse the state’s decision.
“From April 13th to August when I came back, I had no income,” said Brahim. “It’s a very difficult situation.”
In total, several thousand people were likely affected by similar circumstances during the pandemic, said Andrew Stettner, unemployment expert and senior fellow at the Century Foundation.
That would be a small fraction of the tens of millions who lost their jobs in Covid’s economic carnage.
However, critics argue that their plight highlights the antiquated nature of the US unemployment system, which was created in the 1930s when workers could not do their jobs remotely. It’s also an unfair reading of rules due to the impact of the pandemic on international travel, they said.
States are the ultimate arbiter of whether someone can receive unemployment benefits from overseas.
Most, if not all, states have adopted a similar interpretation of the requirement that a benefit recipient must be willing, willing, and able to work, labor experts said.
It is largely a matter of physical presence – in the eyes of the States, someone outside the country is unable to immediately accept offered work and is therefore not entitled to benefits.
Workers must be able to report in person to work in a jurisdiction that state officials say has signed an agreement known as the Interstate Benefit Payment Plan. Foreign countries are not a signatory.
“When the applicant traveled to Spain, he was legally unable to meet the reporting requirements and was therefore not eligible for unemployment insurance benefits,” wrote Anthony Inguanzo, a New York labor officer, in a hearing on Samuels’ case.
According to Stettner, states usually also block the certification of foreign IP addresses for unemployment benefits in order to reduce fraud.
Indeed, international organized crime rings stole billions of dollars’ worth of benefits during the pandemic.
However, according to Harvey Sanders, a New York-based labor law attorney, the state’s stance is too rigid and a misinterpretation of the law.
“It goes back to an archaic view of the world of work,” said Sanders, who represents workers caught in the legal crossfire. “The fact that so many people have teleworked for years is ignored.”
Americans can also look for jobs remotely, Sanders added. Even if they could return to the US, a return flight may have been beyond their budget, he said.
The Missouri and Massachusetts employment agencies have not returned a request for comment. The US Department of Labor did not comment either.
“I didn’t want to get sick”
States are also overlooking a key aspect of the Covid crisis, Sanders said: restricting exercise and travel due to social distancing and health policies.
Some people had to decide whether they wanted to take a disease risk in order to return to the US for unemployment benefits, or whether to forego the funds until the health crisis subsided.
“I didn’t come back because I didn’t want to get sick,” said Susanna D., 43, who lives in Monopoli, Italy, a coastal town on the heel of the Italian boot. She also has asthma. “And it never occurred to me that they would consider this scam.”
Susanna D., 43, works from Italy. She recently won an appeal for unemployment benefits in New York.
Susanna, who asked that her full name not be used for privacy reasons, co-founded a New York-based nonprofit that hosts sporting events. As a dual citizen, she has been working from Italy since 2018.
She moderates a Facebook group for more than 200 Americans stuck overseas.
Susanna recently won a performance appeal in New York and is waiting for her full reimbursement to arrive. She no longer has to repay nearly $ 6,700 in benefits the state was trying to reclaim.
“Her failure to report is for good cause and excusable as she was unable to return to the US due to closed borders and her own health, making her vulnerable to Covid-19,” ruled Sally Woo, an administrative judge on Susanna’s case .
Woo also said that the Interstate Benefit Payment Plan has no provision preventing an employee from receiving benefits outside of the United States
‘Life and death’
Adriana Marian, who lives in St. Louis, awaits an appeal in Missouri. The state canceled a hearing in December and did not set a new date.
“I’m so depressed. I just don’t know what to do anymore,” said Marian. “I got stuck because of this damn coronavirus [in Romania]and nobody does anything. “
Samuels won a hearing for his rebate, but New York appeals to overturn that decision.
“Unless the other way round, the foreseeable effects of the decision can be both profound and far-reaching,” Inguanzo wrote in an appeal document.
Individuals living outside the US for “unknown periods” would be eligible for US benefits and the labor exchange’s ability to “take action against suspicious claims” would be severely affected, he said.
In the meantime, Samuels needed the money to take care of his sick mother, he said. Spain offers free health care to citizens, but there are other costs such as transportation to and from appointments.
“It’s so important that the money come in until I get a new job,” said Samuels.