For weeks Christopher Clatterbuck has had trouble sleeping at night, worrying about when his unemployment claim will be approved. He and his wife used savings to pay for bills for a month and then had to borrow from a relative.
“We are in a situation right now where we have to basically choose who do we want to pay? Can we do without basic necessities, because we have no idea when we’re going to get our money?” he asked.
His wife filed for unemployment at the end of March, after her doctor told her she shouldn’t be working during the COVID-19 pandemic because of preexisting health conditions. She qualified for the federal government’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, but on May 16 they were notified they needed to submit additional documents to verify their identity. They did so immediately, but they’re still waiting to receive any money.
For the past three weeks, the Cheney couple’s payments have been pending. Clatterbuck said he called the Employment Security Department about 100 times before he was even able to reach the line, and when he has gotten through, he’s been put on hold for hours just to have the call get disconnected.
“They told us they’re having to go through and manually verify all of these different accounts,” he said, “and they have no timeline on how long it’ll take, and we won’t be paid until they do that.”
The Clatterbucks aren’t the only ones waiting impatiently for an unemployment claim.
The state still faces significant backlogs in processing requests for the payments, which can be a combination of state and federal benefit programs that were expanded because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
After the programs were expanded and the state rushed to get benefits to a rapidly growing number of unemployed residents, it was hit with criminal fraud operations that may have stolen as much as $650 million.
The extra scrutiny on the identity of those applying for benefits is a result of Washington being hit with massive fraud by organized criminals using fake identities possibly stolen in previous data breaches. That fraud has “thrown a wrench” into the department’s effort to clear claims, Commissioner Suzi LeVine said Thursday.
The department is stepping up efforts to determine which pending claims are legitimate and which are fraudulent. It had cleared about 51,000 pending claims as of Wednesday night, about half of them legitimate and half fraudulent, she said. But it still has tens of thousands more to go.
The state has “clawed back” about $333 million of the stolen benefits and expects to get more as it works with federal law enforcement officials and financial institutions.
“Our No. 1 priority is getting every Washingtonian every benefit for which they are eligible,” LeVine said at her weekly news briefing.
Legitimate claims from out-of-work residents are being delayed because they are missing some information or documentation, she said, but “too many people are waiting for far too long.”
“Not knowing when you’re going to get paid or if you’re going to get paid is really what makes it kind of scary,” Clatterbuck said. “It will literally take all day to get a hold of someone.”
More than 10,000 Washingtonians who have been having trouble getting a hold of someone from the department or have been waiting months to receive unemployment benefits joined a support group on Facebook to help each other out.
“It’s a pretty powerful support system because without that, we would be in the dark here, we would have no idea of if anyone else was going through these kind of issues,” Clatterbuck said.
Aar’in LaPierre, in Tri-Cities, said he’s been checking his payment status every 30 minutes for weeks. He told himself recently to only check twice a day because it’s worn on him.
At one point, he spent three hours on hold trying to resolve his unpaid claims. He said he fell asleep, took a nap, woke up and was still on hold.
“I want somebody to be held accountable or for them to hold themselves accountable for how long they’ve made people wait. Imagine a mom who’s waited weeks and can’t feed her kids,” said LaPierre, 30.
Some callers continue to have trouble getting through to the department, LeVine said, despite the additional staff hired to handle calls. Some calls are being dropped, which she said might be a result of issues with local phone service.
Eligible recipients will eventually get back benefits for all the weeks for which they are entitled, she said. She urged people to keep filing their weekly claims, ignore overpayment notices and use only the Employment Security website. The department will never ask for a fee to process a claim, and applicants should be wary of any solicitor asking for personal information.
Washington continued to see a drop in the number of new requests for unemployment benefits as it continued efforts to recover hundreds of millions paid on bogus claims.
LeVine said the 31,224 new claims, a drop of about 36% over the previous week and 77% over the week ending May 16, was a result of efforts to block attempts to file fraudulent claims and “the economy reopening and people getting back to work.”
As to why criminals have been able to successfully apply for benefits for which they don’t qualify, but some eligible residents continue to struggle for weeks to apply and be approved, LeVine said the criminals don’t care about telling the truth.
They fill out forms in such a way as to avoid sending a claim to adjudication, with information they suspect will yield an approval, she said.
Laid-off workers in Spokane County filed 1,973 claims May 24-30, a 39% decrease from a week prior. More than 80,000 workers in the county have filed unemployment claims since the coronavirus pandemic forced closure of nonessential businesses statewide in March.
In data released by the department Thursday, workers in undisclosed occupations filed 498 new jobless claims in the county last week. Workers in administration and support services filed 182 claims. Food service workers filed 133.
Reporters Maggie Quinlan and Amy Edelen contributed to this report.
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