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Washington grapples with thousands gridlocked in unemployment system

UPDATED: Tue., April 28, 2020

Retailers like Burlington Coat Factory in Spokane are among thousands of businesses that have laid-off tens of thousands of employees during the coronavirus pandemic. The resulting jobless claims have overwhelmed the Washington state Employment Services Department’s system. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Retailers like Burlington Coat Factory in Spokane are among thousands of businesses that have laid-off tens of thousands of employees during the coronavirus pandemic. The resulting jobless claims have overwhelmed the Washington state Employment Services Department’s system. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

Will O. Smith picked a fine time to switch jobs.

The coronavirus pandemic hit just after the Spokane resident started his new gig, and he quickly became one of tens of thousands of Washingtonians stuck in a pool of out-of-work employees making hundreds of unanswered phone calls into an unemployment system ill-equipped to offer them assistance.

As bills for the car payment, cellphone and rent came due over the past six weeks, Smith said he sent more than 20 emails and made more than 100 phone calls. Finally, on Tuesday, he connected with a female employee at the Washington state Employment Security Department.

“I asked her right off the bat, ‘What is holding up this claim,’ ” Smith said. “She said, ‘Oh. it’s on our end.’ She said there are about 100,000 people” in a pool who are waiting for their claims to be reviewed, or what the state calls adjudicated.

Once he spoke to the state employee, Smith, who left work at URM Stores Inc. to start a job in Airway Heights just prior to Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order, said he was able to clear up the situation in four easy questions. But it took him six weeks of trying to get those answers.

“She said I should see funds by the end of the week. I’m not holding my breath,” Smith said. “It’s just a frustrating situation. I can only imagine what it’s like for people who filed after me.”

Nick Demerice, spokesman for the Employment Security Department, acknowledged that the state’s system was designed for a time when it handled hundreds of claims a week. Now it’s getting as many as 25,000 calls a day.

Even after hiring 700 additional agents, the system can still only handle about 2,500 calls each shift, he said.

“I can tell you that the numbers are absolutely massive,” Demerice said. “There are huge numbers of people who are approved and through and receiving checks. That’s the good news side of the story.

“The bad news is that there are still a considerable number of people who haven’t been able to make it through the process. For those people, it’s a really difficult position to find themselves in. We understand the additional financial stress of not receiving benefits is substantial.”

The state has two call centers, one in Lacey and another in Spokane Valley, that take the calls from those seeking approval and those who have received benefits but are required to continually call in to affirm that they have not yet started work and need to continue receiving checks.

But the state no longer has offices where workers can show up to fill out the paperwork. All of that work has been directed online for years.

“There are a lot of reasons that someone’s claim may be held up, ranging from simple mistakes on their application to their employer didn’t report their wages accurately,” Demerice said. “There is always a number of folks who need to speak to a claims agent to get those issues resolved.”

Count Spokane resident Dennis J. Shular among that lot. The out-of-work bus driver had been working for MTRWestern charter service when he had emergency surgery on Feb. 14. After getting out of the hospital, he filed for unemployment April 1.

He said he’s tried dozens of times to get through the phone system to find out why his claim has been held up.

“It always says it’s busy,” Shular said. “I thought the federal government was going to help us with $600 a week through the state. But I can’t get through.”

While acknowledging the state deficiencies, Demerice said residents should keep trying. As of last week, the department had received more than 605,000 claims for unemployment benefits. New numbers of initial jobless claims are expected to be released this week.

“In February, we had the lowest unemployment numbers for the history of our state,” Demerice said. “This all happened at once.”

He said his agency is expected to release figures on Wednesday of the estimated number of people for whom agents are trying to solve whatever problem their claims may have.

“We know it’s frustrating for folks who are waiting. That’s incredibly frustrating,” he said. “If there is a silver lining, thousands do get through every day.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the state limited unemployed workers to 26 weeks of benefits. Recent federal legislation provided funding to extend that for another 13 weeks if needed and added $600 a week to the normal state benefits.

The federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program also has made relief available to self-employed workers and those who didn’t work a minimum of 680 hours in the prior year, both of whom wouldn’t have qualified for state unemployment, Demerice said.

The two sources of funding also have added to the confusion. Federal guidelines require those who were denied state benefits to reapply through the backlogged state system to get the federal unemployment benefits.

Amid the confusion, a recent survey found as many as 65 percent of the phone calls coming to the Employment Security Department are general questions that could have been answered on the agency’s website.

“So, we are really trying to encourage people if they have general questions to try other sources first before they call,” Demerice said. “If they are speaking to an agent about a general question, that’s an agent not able to help someone who needs it.”

While the state tries to solve the backlog, Demerice said workers should know that help is coming.

“People are desperate. Some of their stories are absolutely heartbreaking,” Demerice said. “We recognize that and we are doing everything we can to get their claims processed and decided as fast as we can.”

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