Unemployed Washingtonians living in fear until benefits arrive

Aug 14, 2020, 5:29 AM
Employment Security, audit reports, unemployment tax, unemployment suspect...
A sign at the headquarters for Washington state's Employment Security Department at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Thousands of unemployed Washington residents are still desperately waiting for their unemployment benefits to arrive … and some of them have been waiting since the spring.

The Employment Security Department announced last week that 81,000 claims from March through mid-June had been cleared in what was known as “Operation 100%.”

However, according to the ESD’s benefits data dashboard, nearly 25,000 unemployed people are still waiting for benefits. This is down from 30,000 the last two weeks.

“That number will continue to be somewhere in there as we sort of always will have people in adjudication or have an issue that needs to be resolved in their claim … there will never be zero people waiting,” said Nick Demerice, public affairs director for the ESD.

Family waiting on unemployment forced to ‘sell everything’

Demerice said it’s hard to say when these claims will start to go down, but the state does have a goal of reducing the average processing time for a new claim from four weeks to three.

“It’s impossible to give you a timeline because some of those people are people who have been waiting a while, and some of those people maybe filed last week for the first time,” he said.

Demerice said he did not know how many of the 25,000 unemployed people had been waiting since spring.

Hundreds of people have told KIRO Radio on social media that they have been in unemployment limbo for months.

Author and public speaker Avril van der Merwe of Sequim, Wash., was forced to quit working in March, when gatherings stopped. She filed for unemployment since the law opened up to allow self-employed people to qualify. But after coming in for about five weeks, the benefits suddenly stopped. For months, van der Merwe has not received a cent from government.

“I actually just feel really sad because it was a provision made to assist people during a time of crisis,” she said of unemployment. “And it’s actually resulted in exacerbated stress and hardship.”

She was told she would receive a phone call from the ESD but has not gotten one, even after Senator Maria Cantwell got involved. She also has not received word over email. The one time van der Merwe got through on the phone, she said was not able to reach anyone who could help her.

“I’ve managed to make those five weeks stretch a very long time, but I’ve actually bottomed out now. I’ve actually reached the end of my rope,” she said.

She also has not been able to get necessary repairs done.

“My car has broken down, and in order to even potentially work, I need a working vehicle,” she said. “It hasn’t been able to be repaired, and I’ve gotten to the point where I’m actually thinking of just selling my car.”

Diana Aroutiounova of Puyallup lost her part-time jobs this spring, just before she graduated from the University of Washington. For over four months, she said she has received no unemployment benefits from the ESD, despite phone calls on a daily basis.

“You often sit for hours on the phone, sometimes you get blocked off,” she said.

In the meantime, she has had to couch-surf with friends because she can’t afford rent, and has been relying on food assistance. Aroutiounova said she has blown through nearly all her savings and has been resorting to selling off pieces of furniture.

“I very much qualify and I will eventually get paid, but that eventually is not OK,” she said. “It should have been three months ago.”

She graduated in the medical field, which is experiencing layoffs right now — so finding a new job is not easy.

“You just try to stretch [money] out, I mean, what are we going to do? A lot of people are going through this,” she said. “And it’s definitely unfair, especially as a fresh graduate, it’s really hard. It’s hard. I go to bed every night thinking, ‘What’s going to happen tomorrow?'”

She questions why the delays have taken this long.

“I understand they’re short-staffed, but I mean, they brought in the National Guard, they brought in extra employees, how long does it take?” she said.

Demerice said the department is committed to helping every unemployed person’s claim get sorted out.

“We know that there are literally thousands of other Washingtonians who need help to get resolution on their benefits, and we are laser-focused on getting those people help,” he said.

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Unemployed Washingtonians living in fear until benefits arrive