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Unemployment payment delays have had ‘disastrous collateral consequences’

A sign at the headquarters for Washington state's Employment Security Department at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Thousands of people in Washington state have been waiting months to get their first sign of any unemployment money. But there is good news: Legal help could be on the way.

On June 5, the Sheridan Law Firm filed a petition to order the Employment Security Department (ESD) to pay unemployment benefits to claimants, which have been withheld for months in some cases. The firm recently filed a motion seeking accelerated review, and was denied. A hearing is currently scheduled for July 30, nearly two months after the initial filing.

Motion filed to force Employment Security to pay Washington claimants immediately

“Our goal in filing this petition was to make ESD put the people first,” attorney Andra Krantzler told KIRO Radio’s Gee & Ursula Show. “From the beginning, ESD has fumbled the ball down the field, they broke a lot of promises, and unnecessarily paused payments from valid claimants.

“The mandamus is an opportunity for the state to put in a new play — catch the ball and secure a touchdown on this play for these 33,000 workers.”

Krantzler said this is like the last 20 seconds of the fourth quarter in terms of the intensity that claimants are experiencing.

“When ESD is holding payments back and not giving clear communication to claimants, their hardship is just intensified,” she said.” And so our goal is that ESD put the people first and pay them their money or … send their documents over for a hearing with the Office of Administrative Hearings.”

People who are still waiting for their unemployment payments are distraught, Krantzler said.

“They are calling, they are emailing, they are exhausting every effort and every avenue,” she added. “… We’ve collected over 500 names of people who contacted us just to be part of this petition, and what we’re hearing them say is they cannot communicate with ESD, that they’re not able to get a phone call back, that despite their numerous email messages and all of their effort to provide documentation, such as their identity, or to properly respond to work search requirement requests, have gone silent.”

The ESD is not returning calls and the impact is catastrophic.

“People are experiencing homelessness even though there’s a moratorium on evictions, some people are being evicted and have been evicted,” Krantzler said. “They’re living in their cars, some people have lost their cars or are on the verge of having their cars repossessed. There’s extreme food insecurity. They’re unable to get medicine. They have anxiety, stress, fear.”

Laid-off bartender: Nine weeks without unemployment payment from ESD

Additionally, there are some people who had been receiving payments, but even those stopped without notice, without warning.

“There’s just been these incredibly traumatic stories and really desperation from people trying to actually talk to somebody at ESD,” she said.

As far as why ESD isn’t communicating well, Krantzler said they’d have to explain that themselves.

“I think you would have to invite them to come on and explain why,” she said. “I think that people in positions of power do not often see their liberation tied to the poorest person in our society. And when people in leadership do not check their bias, their well-meaning intentions can have disastrous collateral consequences. And that’s what’s happening here.”

“I think that ESD promulgated emergency rules that would have ensured claimants would get prompt payment, and then they implemented processes that really administratively prevented the agency from complying with emergency order,” she added. “Then they were hit with fraud, and that exacerbated the issues. But ultimately ESD made the decision to treat every claimant as a fraud imposter when they decided to freeze, or pause, or delay benefits, without giving notice, requiring identification. And then when people did submit identification, not promptly resolving the issue for the claimant.”

In the meantime, what can we do for those who are struggling now, waiting for payments?

“I was a homeless family advocate for years before I became a lawyer in Seattle, and I know that we have a 211 system, that we have a crisis response center that can help deal with the mental health and emotional impacts of this. So we’ve been referring people to the crisis clinic and crisis connections and [we’re] thankful for that resource,” she said. “We’re connecting people to community based organizations.”

The delayed unemployment payments is a statewide problem, so Krantzler said they’re trying to refer people to resources in their own communities.

“We are actually having to think about what resources might be available local to that community and then what resources available statewide,” she said. “We are referring people to contact their legislators, and … connecting people to Department of Social and Health Services.”

Overall, Krantzler says there needs to be a person-centered approach from the ESD to resolve the unpaid claims and get money out to people in need.

“I think it starts by answering the phone call and the emails that the claimants have made,” she said. “And I think it starts [by] treating every worker as an important person. [Just] because they’re unemployed doesn’t mean that they deserve less dignity.”

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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