0LYMPIA – Washington is calling out the National Guard to help with another problem connected to the COVID-19 pandemic: clearing up a backlog of claims for unemployment benefits by out-of-work residents, and separating them from fraudulent claims that have cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine said Guard members will begin helping with the backlog next week, joining hundreds of new hires the department has made to process claims.
The total number of Guardsmen is still being discussed, as is the length of their assignment, LeVine said Thursday. They’ll be helping verify identification being submitted by claimants.
“We’ve been discussing many different ways to get this done,” she said of the backlog that has left some unemployed residents without benefits for weeks.
The Guard was also recently tasked with helping food banks sort and distribute supplies when their normal volunteers were under stay-home orders. It also provided backup for local law enforcement during recent protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
After the state received record claims for benefits because parts of the economy were shutting down to avoid the spread of the virus, the department was hit with a sophisticated attack by what officials have described as international criminals who used stolen identity information from previous data breaches to file fraudulent claims.
The state paid out between $550 million and $650 million in fraudulent claims, and has recovered about $337 million so far, LeVine said.
The state was hit with “tens of thousands” of fraudulent claims, she said, but can’t yet provide a number of fraudulent compared to legitimate claims.
Tens of thousands of legitimate claims have been delayed since the state instituted new procedures to verify applicants’ identities to thwart the ongoing effort to file fraudulent claims.
When the fraud was discovered in mid-May, the state had 190,000 claims that it flagged for further identity checks. That number is now down to 78,000, LeVine said.
About 42,000 of those should be cleared for benefits, if legitimate, in the next week or so. The other 36,000 are expected to take more time because they have other issues along with a question about identity.
The number of new unemployment claims dropped for the third straight week, to slightly less than 30,000 new claims for standard state benefits and nearly 20,000 new claims for federal assistance approved by Congress to ease the impact of the pandemic.
The drop in claims was a result of some businesses bringing employees back as the economy starts to reopen. Different counties around Washington are in different phases of that process.
“We are generally seeing claims drop across the board,” said Steven Ross, the department’s labor market information director. While some states are seeing the number of new claims falling faster “each state’s going to have it’s own story.”
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