By the time Kendra Velasquez found the Washington State Unemployment Support Group on Facebook in June, the Bellevue mother of three had exhausted nearly every other option.

Laid off from a server’s job in mid-March as the state began its COVID-19 shutdown, Velasquez, 44, hadn’t received a single dollar in unemployment benefits, despite hours on hold with the state Employment Security Department.

But soon after joining the 15,700-plus member Facebook group, one of the largest focused on Washington’s overwhelmed unemployment system, Velasquez got more than just good advice. She also found an unexpected, surprisingly welcoming community that showed her she wasn’t the only person lost down a bureaucratic rabbit hole.

“As silly as it sounds, that made me feel not so alone,” says Velasquez, whose husband was also unemployed but had received benefits. “I hate that I felt I had to join this group — but I am so glad I did.”

It’s a familiar story for Andrew and Emmy Goetz, the Spokane couple who run the Washington State Unemployment Support Group. Andrew, 37, launched the group in April after struggling to resolve his own unemployment claim and finding few answers in existing online forums. 

Initially, the group aimed to be “a technical support type of place for people to share issues they experienced [over claims] and how they were able to resolve them,” says Andrew, who has returned to work and handed most of the “admin” work to Emmy, 29.  

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But as more people joined — more than 7,500 in May alone — and as the worsening pandemic brought more layoffs and frustrated workers, the focus on technical questions expanded to reflect the broader and messier realities of joblessness in the age of COVID-19. 

Today, the group is a microcosm of the state’s worst economic crisis in living memory. Members come from nearly every locale and demographic (though women outnumber men 3 to 1) and bring questions about every facet of the crisis.

On any given day, members are sharing heartbreaking stories of privation and loss, or trading predictions over whether Gov. Jay Inslee will put the state back into lockdown or whether Congress will extend the just-expired $600 weekly federal benefit.

But discussions focus mainly on the nitty-gritty of joblessness: filing for benefits, or, more often, figuring out how to respond when a claim is delayed or flat-out denied by ESD.

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There are long comment threads about whether part-time work qualifies for federal benefits, or what to do if a member ends up in the dreaded “adjudication” queue for extra review. Of special interest: how to hack the ESD’s Kafkaesque helpline and reach a senior-level “Tier 3” staffer with the authority to actually resolve some stuck claims and get money flowing.

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When newcomer Savana Gockerell, 28, of Federal Way, asked last week for help reaching a Tier 3 staffer over a stalled claim, a group commenter laid out the strategy: call the ESD helpline and, if you get put through to anyone below a Tier 3, insist on being put back into the queue until you get a Tier 3 staffer.

It was a solid tip, says Gockerell, whose hours at a Seattle-area aerospace firm had been cut. On Thursday, she reached the Tier 3 queue, although the agency closed for the day before she actually connected. “The strategy works — it’s just mainly a waiting game,” she says.

Like most digital forums, the Facebook group has evolved with its membership, which in turn has evolved with the pandemic. When the state rolled out the $600 federal benefit in late April, the group’s attentions shifted to questions of who was eligible and how one filed.

When the ESD disclosed a $550 million-to-$650 million fraud scheme in May and suspended nearly 200,000 claims, the group was flooded with panicked questions about how members could prove they weren’t Nigerian scammers.

And in recent months, as tens of thousands of workers found themselves unable to get their claims unstuck or get anyone on the phone at ESD, group members began circulating a new strategy: sending their claim to outside players with access to ESD. Among those with access: union representatives, labor advocacy groups or, especially, elected representatives, lists of which often circulate in the group.

That turned out to be the silver bullet for Velasquez: “If it wasn’t for the group, I would have never known to do that,” she says.

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In some cases, however, the fix is less elaborate. Because many group members are filing for unemployment for the first time in their lives, they can easily make mistakes using a government benefits system that is confusing in the best of times.

Often, newcomers don’t realize their claim is stalled because they forgot to upload a request document or take some other step, says Karen Cheesman, a Mountlake Terrace resident who is the site’s top contributor (more than 6,000 comments), and go-to source on issues like adjudication. In some cases, she says, members are frustrated because they think the ESD isn’t responding, when “it’s actually ESD waiting for them to upload” a key document.

Of course, like anything else in social media, the group’s information exchange is far from perfect. “I’ve seen people on here just giving the worst advice,” grouses Cheesman, 55.

Andrew acknowledges that errors do get posted, but notes that members usually flag the gaffes — a self-correcting dynamic he likens to Wikipedia.

Things can also get uncivil. By the time people join, they’re often frustrated and defensive at having to ask for help so publicly, and online fights can break out. And many are so desperate for answers — some have been waiting several months for benefits — they can be easy marks for rumors, conspiracy theories, and scams.

That means Emmy Goetz — who administers the group on breaks from parenting their four kids — and the two other moderators must be on constant watch for frauds, bots and trolls, as well as new members who “just seem to want a fight.” She jokes ruefully that some of the characters she’s had to eject or mute “kind of make me question humanity.”

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Yet the group has also shown the Goetzes the very best side of the human nature in a crisis.

As newcomers quickly discover, the group trades not only in information, but in acts of kindness that often prove essential in a time of hardship and agonizing uncertainty.

When Steve Weaver joined in May, the 35-year-old unemployed bartender was living in his car and struggling to pay for his insulin treatments. Several group members sent him money and then refused to accept repayment. “They said, across the board, without exception, ‘Look, you don’t worry about paying me back. If you want to do anything, pay it forward,'” Weaver says.

When Weaver finally got his payments, in June, he helped out other members in return. But he also made a grander gesture on behalf of the state’s unpaid unemployed.

He held one-man demonstrations outside the ESD office in Olympia and did media interviews criticizing ESD and its commissioner, Suzi LeVine. For Weaver, the Facebook group had offered up a kind of digital class consciousness: Seeing thousands of other workers struggling with the same issues “made me realize how much of a disaster this really was,” says Weaver.

Andrew and Emmy Goetz try to keep politics out of the group. Although they realize unemployment is inherently political, “We try to keep political debates to a minimum since it’s a controversial subject and gets people heated,” says Emmy. Admins get automatic alerts for key terms like “Democrat” and “Republican” and will delete overtly partisan commentary and mute repeat offenders.

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Still, the more common form of activism in the group is more low key. Many members who get their own problems solved stay on to help newcomers.

Velasquez, for example, got paid in late July after 19 weeks, but is staying on to make sure others know to contact their elected representatives.

Exhibit A for “paying it forward” is probably Cheesman, who says she often spends all day “trying to answer people’s questions and get them paid.” It’s “way too much” time, she admits, laughing.

Still, after getting so much help from the group while she was dealing with her own saga — 10 weeks of no benefits — Cheesman feels an obligation to help others avoid that same agony.

And, says Cheesman, she has spare time. Her housecleaning business shut down in March. “I can’t say I’m not getting paid because I’m getting unemployment,” she says.

“So I’m OK with that.”