HAMPTON, Va. -- It seems like a classic case of falling through the cracks.
Kanini Mungal was a restaurant manager in Hampton making a good salary.
Her two young children were learning mostly at home under their grandmother's guidance, with the six-year-old boy attending kindergarten two days a week on a hybrid schedule, the 10-year-old girl at home studying under the Virginia Home School program.
Then her mom, the children's grandmother, was diagnosed with cancer and Kanini's world fell apart: she had to leave her job because someone needed to be at home with her children.
"I've worked all my life," Kanini, 42, said. "I've never tried to get anything for free. I haven't used any kind of assistance before, and I was really naive, I thought, 'Okay. I'll be okay, you know, I'll file for unemployment, and I'll be OK.'"
But she has not been OK.
Getting through to the Virginia Employment Commission to find what, if any, benefits she qualifies for, has proven impossible.
Going on nine weeks now.
"I've tried to be right on the phone at 8 a.m.," she said. "It's busy, and they don't leave you the option to hold, so they'll just say, 'Our representatives are busy, call back later,' and it hangs up on you. And I have written. in fact, I wrote an email every day for about three weeks."
It's a problem we've heard about from countless viewers and CBS 6 Facebook friends: the weeks-long, sometimes months-long torment that is trying to talk to a human being at the VEC.
But Kanini's predicament is different from the typical pandemic-related layoff.
So I asked VEC spokeswoman Joyce Fogg via email whether anyone in Kanini's position could qualify for unemployment benefits. Fogg replied, "It will have to be adjudicated and Department of Labor guidelines are there for these types of issues."
Because she left her job, and was not let go by her employer, Kanini would apparently not be entitled to normal unemployment insurance. And even the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which expands the reasons for leave under the Family Medical Leave Act because of the pandemic, would not provide monetary benefits beyond an 80-hour (two week) emergency authorization.
Kanini says she opted to home-school her daughter because the Hampton school system had started back up in late fall, only to close once again. The January restart date kept getting pushed back and Kanini needed certainty. Her son is doing the hybrid program because she wanted him to know what school was like.
But now local day care facilities are full, and Kanini worries about leaving her children with strangers in a pandemic. "You can't just leave them with anyone," she said.
Employment discrimination lawyer Lisa Bertini in Virginia Beach points out that people like Kanini are in a tough spot. "There is so little social net for folks like her. It is heartbreaking, but not covered by the laws in place right now," Bertini wrote via email. "Women have been disproportionately affected by this pandemic."
Indeed, Kanini points out that the children's fathers earned less than she did, so when their divorces were finalized, she was the one who would be responsible for child support. She says they are helping now, but it is not nearly enough.
As Kanini scrambles to keep her life together, she has been forced to rely on emergency aid. "Thank God for the rent relief programs right now, because that's the only reason why I still have my roof over my head," said Kanini. "And now I have to use food stamps to get food. So, I have nothing, I mean, I have some funds left from some stimulus money, but that that's going to run out anytime and there's nothing coming in."
A call to Kanini's state senator's office yielded an offer to get the VEC to contact her about her case. An aide in the office of Sen. Mamie Locke (D- Hampton) said he was unaware of any other state program that could be useful. But that VEC contact could take still another week, and with no guarantee of actual help.
That means another week for a family struggling in this pandemic, with young eyes and ears taking it all in.
"My daughter especially, because she's a little bit older, she's 10. She sees me I'm constantly calling," said Kanini. "I'm always trying to call but I'm not getting through, and she sees me frustrated. I try not to show them, you know that things are getting hard. I don't want them to see that, but they're going to pick up on it because they're very intuitive."
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