Nearly a year and a half after Washington was hammered by a wave of pandemic layoffs, state officials say they’ve cleared a large backlog of unpaid unemployment claims and fixed some of the bugs that caused the delays in the first place.
The state Employment Security Department (ESD) has resolved all but a handful of the tens of thousands of jobless claims that were stalled at the agency as of early June, an agency official said Friday afternoon.
A second, more recent group of claimants with delayed benefits payments has been reduced from around 10,000 to just under 5,200, said ESD spokesman Nick Demerice.
ESD provided the updates shortly after a meeting with Northwest Justice Project, a Seattle-based organization that sued the agency last year over delays in paying jobless benefits. Under a settlement approved last week, ESD had agreed to resolve the June 1 backlog of claims by Nov. 15.
“Progress has been made,” said Jefferson Coulter, an attorney with Northwest Justice Project.
ESD also agreed to address problems in its claims processing system, including claimant notifications that were often confusing or left claimants with little recourse.
For example, while claimants who are denied benefits by the agency can appeal the decision, some claimants received letters from ESD saying their benefits had been determined to be $0, which “would prevent us from being able to appeal to do anything about it,” Coulter said.
Demerice said claimants receive those notices if they’re found to be eligible for unemployment yet lack enough work hours in their preceding “base” year to currently qualify for benefits. “A lot of this happened in those first few months of the pandemic, and they were very confusing for folks,” said Demerice.
The agency is going to reword those notifications “so that claimants will have a better sense of what to do when they get that $0 determination,” Demerice said.
The settlement pointed to roughly 102,000 claims “issues” that ESD had flagged as of June 1 related to questions about claimants’ identity, problems in how claimants had applied for benefits or disputes over claimants’ benefit amounts.
But a single claim can be flagged with multiple issues, Demerice said. He said he didn’t have a figure Friday for how many separate individuals had been caught up in the June 1 backlog or how many hadn’t been paid because of the claims issues, but added that it was well below 102,000.
Northwest Justice Project filed the lawsuit in June 2020 in Thurston County Superior on behalf of six claimants whose benefits had been delayed. It was one of several legal actions against ESD as the agency struggled with hundreds of thousands of new unemployment claims from the pandemic and a massive unemployment scam that siphoned off $650 million in benefits.
ESD was also sued by the Seattle- and Spokane-based Unemployment Law Project, which represents people appealing their claims.
ESD also came under heavy pressure from state lawmakers, who ultimately passed legislation directing the agency to improve its processing systems, report its progress to lawmakers, and post monthly reports on payment delays and other claims data on its website. Those updates are now available.
In a statement, ESD said the settlement with the Northwest Justice Project “affirms the improvements we’ve made so far and identifies opportunities to strengthen partnerships with stakeholders. We look forward to collaborating with them in service to Washington workers.”
Coulter lauded ESD’s efforts at resolving the backlog and addressing other issues. He said the agency had been testing its communications for clarity with groups of volunteers and also had agreed to have those communications reviewed by Northwest Justice Project and Unemployment Law Project.
“They’ve been working in really good faith with us for the last year or so,” Coulter said.
Still, he said, getting the agency to address the problems with “what we think is pretty common sense improvements” had required pressure from lawmakers as well as the threat of continued legal action.
“We tried to figure out a way to resolve this without a lawsuit,” Coulter said, adding that “the uncertainty of how a judge was going to rule against them was motivating.”