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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington unemployment benefit requests up 28% last week as state bombarded by fraudulent claims

A person walks past art by the street artist @dozfy, featuring the Space Needle on the boarded-up Virginia Inn Restaurant and Bar, on Saturday, May 16, 2020, in downtown Seattle. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

The state of Washington received 138,733 new requests for jobless benefits last week, bringing the total number of claims filed to more than 1.6 million since the beginning of March, the state Employment Security Department reported Thursday.

The number of new claims filed for the week ending May 16 increased nearly 27% from the 109,425 filed a week prior, but state officials attribute some of that to an influx of fraudulent claims totaling “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

The employment department has zeroed in on stopping the increase in fraudulent claims by implementing new security measures and working closely with federal law enforcement to investigate the crimes and recoup the stolen money, said Suzi LeVine, Employment Security Commissioner.

The ESD is hiring more than 100 additional staff members to answer questions on its fraud hotline. It also has added authentication features to its system. The flood of fraudulent claims, however, is adding one to two days in payment-processing time to validate applicant information, LeVine said.

“We do have definitive proof that the countermeasures we put into place are working,” LeVine said. “We have prevented hundreds of millions of additional dollars from going out to criminals and prevented thousands of fraudulent claims from being filed.”

Those filing the fraudulent claims are believed to have gained individuals’ personal information from breaches of other databases and not the ESD’s system, according to the department.

In data released by the state Thursday, the greatest number of unemployment benefit applications statewide were from workers in the educational services sector, with 16,924 new claims. Health care and social assistance workers filed 15,759 new claims, and manufacturing workers filed 10,789.

Laid-off workers in Spokane County filed 8,762 claims May 10-16, a 26% increase from a week prior. More than 75,000 workers in the county have filed unemployment claims since the coronavirus pandemic forced closure of nonessential businesses statewide in March.

Education workers in the county filed 1,217 claims last week. Workers in the health care sector, which includes ambulatory services, hospitals, nursing and residential care facilities, filed 882 claims. Administration and support services workers filed 608.

The food services and accommodation sector continues to be among the hardest hit in the county, with 423 people filing new claims last week.

The ESD has paid benefits to more than 768,000 laid-off workers statewide who filed initial claims since the pandemic took hold in the state and is remaining “laser focused” on getting benefits out quickly to those who have still not been paid, LeVine said.

To date, the department has paid out more than $3.8 billion in unemployment benefits since early March.