Furloughed single mom details being locked out of unemployment
As over 70,000 people wait to begin receiving unemployment, others have suddenly stopped getting their benefits during the Employment Security Department’s fraud investigations.
Last month, the department revealed that it had accidentally paid out between $550 million and $650 million to fraudsters using the stolen identities of Washingtonians to make thousands of false claims. Since then, $350 million has been recovered — but in the meantime, thousands of claimants have found their accounts frozen as part of the investigation.
Shawna De La Rosa, a single mom of two teenage boys, is one of the thousands of people still locked out from her unemployment account after the fraud attack.
De La Rosa was furloughed from her reporting job in May, and received three weekly unemployment payments before her account was locked in early June. Since then, she hasn’t gotten a dime — or any word of when she will again.
“It’s definitely an emotional strain. I’ve lost a lot of sleep over it, just wondering, ‘What else should I do, what else should I think of?'” she said. “I mean, it’s hard enough just to lose your job.”
The Gig Harbor mom was asked by the ESD to upload documents to her unemployment account verifying her identity. The problem, De La Rosa said, is that she has no way of getting into her account with the lock on it.
“They sent me an email and said I had a deadline of sending in my stuff by June 19 — but I couldn’t even get into my account to upload anything,” she said.
After hours trying to get through on the phone, De La Rosa was finally able to reach a representative, who helped her send her documents a different way. However, her account remains locked, and she still has no idea when she will get her payments again.
Luckily, De La Rosa has backup funds that will keep her going for a little while, but she said that many others she has talked to have no money to live on — especially those whose bank accounts have also been frozen as part of the investigations. De La Rosa said she does not know how people without access to unemployment checks or their own funds in their bank accounts are surviving.
“They’re housekeepers at hotels, they’re bartenders … they really don’t have any backup, they don’t have any help, and they’re not getting any answers,” she said. “It is absolutely devastating that so many people are not able to feed their families.”
De La Rosa belongs to a Facebook group of over 14,000 Washingtonians who are currently unemployed. (This is a small fraction of those who have filed for unemployment — last week saw over 718,000 people file for benefits.) She said that the majority of people who post in the group about calling ESD have reported being unable to get through, comparing a phone call being answered to “winning the lottery.”
ESD began restricting calls this week, which will continue through next week. The department says this is so representatives can spend more time making calls out to people having difficulty with their claims.
In a media briefing on Thursday, Employment Security Commissioner Suzi LeVine said with the help of 50 National Guard members, the department has cleared up 100,000 identification issues in the past two weeks.
“We will have all those whose claims were impacted on May 15 with identity verification issues resolved on time by June 30, along with many others from both before and after that time frame,” LeVine said.
She said there were 17,000 identity issues still in the queue, not counting those that were flagged on May 15.
In the meantime, as people wait for answers they’re not getting, they’re making tough decisions, De La Rosa said. A friend of hers who is also a furloughed single mother has chosen to sell her house to make ends meet. De La Rosa said many in the Facebook group have had to resort to living in vehicles or campsites while they wait for their unemployment funds.
“This other woman, she has three boys, she and her partner are both locked, they’re not receiving money … they were staying in a hotel, they got kicked out of a hotel, so they’re living in their car in parks,” she said.
De La Rosa believes LeVine should step down from her position as commissioner.
“She should not be in that position anymore … she’s affecting all these people, and she needs to accept responsibility for it,” she said. “This is not legal what they’re doing … it’s illegal for them to be withholding claims from legitimate claimants.”
A lawsuit filed against the ESD in the Washington State Supreme Court seeks to force the department to immediately pay all of the people still waiting for benefits.
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.