For most unemployed Washingtonians, this week brought welcome news.
Thanks to a new $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package signed Thursday by President Joe Biden, federal jobless benefits that were set to expire Sunday — including an extra $300 weekly payment that started in January — are now available through Sept. 6.
But not every jobless Washingtonian will see that money right away.
Even though most claimants should see prompt payment of those federal benefits, some claimants who are dealing with eligibility issues or other problems still face long delays while the state Employment Security Department (ESD) reviews their claims.
Jim Wilson, 57, of Walla Walla, said the ESD recently told him his unemployment claim, filed in early January, likely wouldn’t be reviewed until mid-April. “Thank God my wife has a job as a teacher and we have some savings,” wrote Wilson, who was laid off from his job as a bank marketing director, in a letter to state officials.
Spokane area resident Eric Gilbert, 43, said an ESD representative told him to expect a three-month wait for agency review of an identity-verification issue that had stopped his payments in February. “I said, ‘you’ve got to be joking, right?'” Gilbert, a single father who was laid off from the Census Bureau in November, said. “And he’s like, ‘no.'”
ESD spokesperson Nick Demerice wasn’t able to speak to the complaints of specific claimants. But he said reports of long wait times likely reflect a backlog of claims that require special agency review, known as adjudication.
“We continue to have a backlog, although it’s coming down, on more complicated adjudications,” Demerice said. Claims with complex issues, such as disputes over why an employee left a job, are “likely taking longer than eight weeks at this point,” Demerice added in a text message.
ESD adjudicators often have fallen behind in the pandemic as claims volumes have soared and as federal relief programs imposed new eligibility requirements that made it easier for claims to be held up.
The number of claimants who haven’t been paid and have waited three weeks or longer for the ESD to resolve a claims issue is around 9,400, Demerice said. An additional 61,000 or so Washingtonians have been ruled ineligible for benefits by the ESD and have appealed the decision, according to the ESD and the state Office of Administrative Appeals (OAH). That compares to the roughly 314,000 Washingtonians who are receiving benefits.
The number of delayed or appealed claims is considerably smaller than during the first months of the pandemic, but far more than what is typical.
The delays and backlogs come amid generally encouraging economic news.
The reopening of the state economy continues apace as coronavirus cases fall and vaccinations rise.
Steadily fewer Washingtonians are filing for unemployment. Last week, 11,760 new, or “initial,” claims, were filed, a 9.2% decrease from the previous week, ESD reported Thursday. It was the eighth weekly decline in the last nine weeks.
Nationally, new jobless claims fell 5.6% to 712,000, the U.S. Labor Department reported.
Even as the broader economy recovers, federal relief is now headed to workers from job sectors that haven’t bounced back.
Beyond the $300 weekly payments, the American Rescue Package, as the pandemic-relief plan is known, extends through Sept. 6 the pandemic unemployment benefits for jobless workers, such as freelancers and part-timers, who don’t normally qualify for regular state benefits.
Also extended are federal benefits for those who have exhausted state unemployment benefits.
The delays reported by some claimants also come as the ESD has redoubled efforts to speed up claims processing by adding staff and by simplifying the application process so fewer claims are flagged for review.
For example, the ESD has doubled the number of days, from five to 10, that claimants already receiving benefits have to respond to agency requests for additional information or identity documents. Agency staff are also proactively contacting claimants who may have missed those deadlines, Cami Feek, the ESD’s acting commissioner, told state lawmakers last week.
In many cases, claimants who fail to respond in time to agency information requests have been automatically disqualified for benefits already paid. That has led to increasingly harsh notices demanding repayment — sometimes for as much as $20,000.
As of last week, there were around 55,000 claimants who potentially could have to repay benefits, Feek told lawmakers — although in many cases, those issues can be resolved by providing requested information.
But the agency is still struggling with high claims volumes, which remain nearly double the level of a year ago, before the pandemic. And the last-minute extension of federal jobless benefits in December delayed many payments as some claimants were shunted from one benefit program to another.
Feek said similar snags aren’t likely to reoccur. “We do not expect there will be a gap in benefits for most claimants as long as they remain eligible and continue to submit weekly claims,” Feek said in a statement Wednesday.
The ESD also seen some metrics improve. The average time required by the agency to transfer an appeal to the state hearings office has fallen from 28 days in mid-February to 23 days as of Feb. 27, according to OAH figures.
And while the agency still has a backlog of stalled claims from December, some of those stuck claimants are getting unstuck.
Erin Heuer, a 36-year-old Bainbridge Island resident, was among the thousands of Washingtonians who got a notice demanding repayment of benefits — in her case, nearly $8,500 — and who had no idea why they were on the hook.
But after speaking with an ESD representative this week, Heuer, a beertender who was put on standby last March, discovered the problem: She’d missed an ESD request for information last fall. “And then it just automatically … started sending those letters out,” she said, adding that she thinks she now has her problem resolved “100%.”
Wilson, the former Walla Walla marketing manager, also got some answers — albeit in a roundabout way.
Like many desperate claimants, Wilson contacted his local state representatives, who forwarded his claim to the ESD, which on Thursday sent him an email. It “basically said, ‘we’ve got your request for assistance and we’ll get back to you sometime,'” Wilson said.
“It still was pretty perfunctory,” he added. “But at least I got a response.”