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Motion filed to force Employment Security to pay Washington claimants immediately

This photo shows a sign at the headquarters for Washington state's Employment Security Department Tuesday, May 26, 2020, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

A motion filed this week in the lawsuit against the Employment Security Department could soon see the ESD forced to pay unemployment benefits to the tens of thousands of workers waiting on them.

The lawsuit, filed in the Washington State Supreme Court earlier this month by nonprofit law firm The Unemployment Law Project and two Washington workers, asks that Employment Security promptly communicate with and pay unemployment benefits to every claimant waiting on them. Over 70,000 laid-off workers have not yet received unemployment benefits, including some who were laid off as far back as March.

The Motion for Accelerated Review and Immediate Relief demands that the department immediately be made to pay out unemployment benefits without further delay, stating that “the procedural nightmare at ESD is an affront to dignity.”

“There’s extremely long delays, it’s very hard to get through [on the phone], there’s incredibly confusing communication, the end result of which is tens of thousands of people who haven’t gotten a single bit of unemployment benefits since March,” said Sage Wilson, a spokesperson for workers’ rights group Working Washington.

Why Washington was a target for unemployment fraud

The current situation, he said, is especially distressing for people out of work because many do not even have a rough estimate of when they can plan on receiving their money.

This can force them to make drastic and sometimes unhealthy decisions. Wilson said he knows of one immuno-compromised bartender in Vancouver, Wash., who lost his job in March when the stay-at-home order closed bars. Because he has not received unemployment benefits in three months, he had to move into his car and become a gig worker — increasing the chance that he could catch the coronavirus.

“The state’s failure to pay benefits to somebody who very clearly is in the category of laid off through no fault of his own, as a bartender during COVID, is now living out of his car and doing delivery work even more in an exposed situation,” Wilson said. “That’s the kind of thing that is happening across the state because of the state’s failure to pay benefits promptly.”

Over the past few months, as the pandemic has devastated the economy and job market, Employment Security said it has received record numbers of claims, upwards of 100,000 initial claims alone some weeks, and as high as 180,000 in early April. These kinds of numbers haven’t been seen since the department was founded during the Great Depression. As a result, the department has been backlogged in processing and sending out payments.

In that time, the ESD mistakenly paid out an estimated $550-$650 million to fraudsters who filed thousands of false unemployment claims using the stolen identities of Washingtonians. Over $300 million of that money has been recovered; however, the crimes have slowed the unemployment process, as additional checks have had to be put in place to sort out the false claims from the legitimate ones, and tens of thousands of claimants have even had their accounts frozen.

Wilson said he does not blame the ESD for the fraud mistake, as many states were hit by similar unemployment crimes, but he does believe the situation could have been handled better.

“The way the department has handled the fraud has been to delay payments for tons of people who were legitimate claimants, to cut off payments for a lot of people … the way they’ve handled it has made people who were legitimate claimants now be victims of the fraud as well by not receiving their benefits,” Wilson said. “It seems like there must have been a better way to handle it than that, than by cutting off benefits to so many people.”

Employment Security has hired additional staff and the National Guard has been brought in to help expedite payments.

Wilson applauds this, but believes it doesn’t go far enough. In the next few days, he wants to see, at the very least, answers from the state so that unemployed people can have a clear idea of the date they can expect their benefits.

“The fundamental thing that the state needs to do is really make a sharp commitment to a sharp and clear timeline so that people can have that basic security of when they’re going to get an answer,” he said. “That probably will require bringing more people on to get the work done.”

Employment Security Commissioner Suzi LeVine refused to speak about the litigation during a regular media briefing on Thursday, and the Employment Security Department has not yet responded to a request from KIRO Radio for comment. This story will be updated if and when a response is received.

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