Last November, tens of thousands of Washingtonians were told to repay millions of dollars in federal unemployment benefits after the state botched a process for verifying eligibility.
Now, Washington is taking another run at the verification process, which state officials say has been improved to avoid earlier glitches. But much still depends on whether those many thousands can be persuaded to answer questions about unemployment benefits that may have been received, and spent, months ago.
On Friday, the state Employment Security Department began sending notices to roughly 105,000 current and former claimants asking them to verify their eligibility.
Verification is required by the federal government, which won’t pay federal pandemic benefits to unemployed workers who are eligible instead for regular state unemployment benefits.
But despite efforts to smooth out the verification process, ESD officials acknowledged that the process was complicated and potentially confusing. Some labor advocates feared a repeat of last year’s debacle, especially for people who may not realize they need to verify eligibility for money they’ve already received.
“I am definitely concerned about how people not currently collecting benefits may not reply on a timely basis, triggering overpayments,” said Sage Wilson, a spokesperson for the union-affiliated Working Washington.
The verification process comes as the state continues to see a decline in first-time claims for unemployment.
On Thursday, ESD reported receiving 6,892 new, or “initial,” claims for regular unemployment benefits last week, a 22.3% decrease from the week before. The total number of new and ongoing claims last week was 383,776, which was down just under 1% from the prior week, ESD reported.
Nationally, new claims rose by 37,000, or nearly 10%, to 412,000, the U.S. Labor Department reported Thursday.
Part of what makes the verification process so complicated is the potential for what might be called retroactive ineligibility.
For example, many claimants qualified last year for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which kicked in after claimants exhausted their 26 weeks of regular state unemployment. But in the months since, many of those claimants may have become eligible for another 26 weeks of state benefits.
All told, ESD flagged 105,000 claimants for potential eligibility issues and now needs to verify each claim.
But as many claimants learned last year, verification can be inherently confusing.
The process requires that claimants essentially reapply for benefits to determine if they’re ineligible for federal benefits they’re either currently receiving or have already been paid.
In many case, claimants who end up being retroactively denied eligibility for prior federal benefits are then approved for state unemployment benefits covering the same period.
But sometimes, moving from federal to a state benefit can change the weekly benefit payment. For example, a claimant moving from a federal benefit that covered part-time workers to the regular state unemployment benefit could see their weekly benefit payment fall from $235 to $201.
“This was always going to be confusing,” said Clare DeLong, ESD spokesperson. “You basically get denied, and then you get approved. … And if you do move to a new [unemployment] program, that can move your benefit amount up or down.”
Last fall, roughly half the Washingtonians who received ESD verification requests didn’t respond in time. Many later complained they didn’t see the notices or didn’t understand why they needed to reapply for benefits months after resuming work.
Regardless, a missed deadline often caused the ESD’s claims system to automatically classify claimants as ineligible for benefits already paid — with the result that “the claimant would get a really scary overpayment letter saying they owed us money,” ESD Commissioner Cami Feek told state lawmakers in March.
Although the average dollar amount for claimants receiving an overpayment notice is around $2,000, some claimants had been asked to repay as much as $20,000, an ESD spokesperson said in March.
After a backlash from claimants, labor advocates and lawmakers, ESD suspended the verification program and overpayment notices related to these eligibility issues.
The agency also brought in 50 National Guard members to help contact claimants about overpayment issues.
The agency retooled its verification process to make it easier, with clearer messaging and additional notices, including automated phone calls. Claimants also now have 10 days to respond, instead of the five allowed last year.
But DeLong acknowledged that process still hinges on claimants’ responsiveness. “The really important thing is that people read that alert and follow the instructions,” she said.
ESD officials say the early results are encouraging. As of Thursday, 43% of claimants had responded to notifications, Delong said. The agency won’t have a final tally until June 29, which is the response deadline for the last group of claimants who have received notifications.
Still, judging from responses on social media and in emails sent to The Seattle Times, the notifications were creating plenty of confusion and frustration.
Some claimants reported technical problems filing new claims on the ESD website.
Others reported being unable to reach the ESD help desk. “I just called the office at 8 a.m. and it’s already not accepting calls due to high call volume,” wrote the member of a Facebook support group. “Biting my nails hard over here.”
Others who refiled said the process triggered an anti-fraud measure that required them to resubmit copies of personal identification.
Still others worried that filing a new claim put them at risk of losing their current benefits — and said they were delaying filing until they’d seen what happened to other claimants.
“I completely understand that fear [but] the worst thing you can do is not respond,” said DeLong. “Because if they don’t … then it will likely result in an overpayment notice, which would otherwise be avoided.”
This week, the ESD also released its employment report for May, which showed the state added 8,300 jobs for that month, down from 13,200 in April and 27,000 in March. The state’s unemployment rate in May was 5.3%, down from 5.4% in April. The national unemployment rate for May was 5.8%.