Unemployed Washingtonians brace for snafu as state rechecks benefit eligibility
Last November, tens of thousands of Washingtonians were asked to repay millions of dollars in federal unemployment benefits after the state botched an eligibility verification process.
Now Washington is resuming the verification process, which state officials say has been improved to avoid previous problems. But it still depends on whether these thousands of people can be persuaded to answer questions about unemployment benefits that may have been received and spent months ago.
On Friday, the state’s job security department began sending notices to about 105,000 current and former applicants asking them to verify their eligibility.
Verification is required by the federal government, which will not pay federal pandemic benefits to unemployed workers who are eligible instead for regular state unemployment benefits.
But despite efforts to facilitate the verification process, ESD officials acknowledged that the process was complicated and potentially confusing. Some union activists feared a repeat of last year’s debacle, especially for people who may not realize they need to verify their eligibility for the money they have already received.
“I am really concerned that people who are not currently receiving benefits may not respond in a timely manner, which triggers overpayments,” said Sage Wilson, spokesperson for union-affiliated Working Washington. .
The verification process comes as the state continues to see a decline in first jobless claims.
Thursday, ESD reported receiving 6,892 new or âinitialâ claims for regular unemployment benefits last week, down 22.3% from the week before. . The total number of new and open claims last week was 383,776, a decrease of just under 1% from the previous week, ESD reported.
Nationally, new claims rose 37,000, or nearly 10%, to 412,000, the US Department of Labor reported Thursday.
Part of what makes the verification process so complicated is the potential for what you might call retroactive ineligibility.
For example, many claimants qualified last year for emergency pandemic unemployment compensation, which began after claimants exhausted their 26 weeks of regular unemployment in the state. But in the months that followed, many of those claimants may have become eligible for an additional 26 weeks of state benefits.
In total, ESD has reported 105,000 applicants for potential eligibility issues and must now verify each application.
But as many applicants learned over the past year, checking out can be inherently confusing.
The process essentially requires claimants to reapply for benefits to determine if they are not eligible for the federal benefits they are currently receiving or have already been paid for.
In many cases, applicants who end up being retroactively denied eligibility for prior federal benefits are then approved for state unemployment benefits spanning the same period.
But sometimes, switching from a federal allowance to a state allowance can change the payment of weekly allowances. For example, a claimant switching from a federal benefit covering part-time workers to a regular state unemployment benefit could see their weekly payment drop from $ 235 to $ 201.
âIt was always going to be confusing,â ESD spokesperson Clare DeLong said. âBasically you get turned down and then you get approved. … And if you move to a new [unemployment] program, which can increase or decrease your benefit amount.
Last fall, about half of Washingtonians who received ESD verification requests did not respond on time. Many later complained that they did not see the notices or understand why they had to reapply for benefits months after returning to work.
Regardless, a missed deadline often caused ESD’s claims system to automatically classify claimants as ineligible for benefits already paid – with the result that “the claimant would receive a really scary overpayment letter. saying he 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 have been asked to reimburse up to $ 20,000, an ESD spokesperson said in March.
After a reaction from claimants, labor rights advocates and lawmakers, ESD suspended the verification program and overpayment notices related to these eligibility issues.
The agency also enlisted 50 members of the National Guard to help contact claimants about overpayment issues.
The agency has revamped its verification process to make it easier, with clearer messages and additional notices, including automated phone calls. Applicants also now have 10 days to respond, instead of the five allowed last year.
But DeLong acknowledged that the process always depends on the responsiveness of applicants. âThe really important thing is that people read this alert and follow the instructions,â she said.
ESD officials say early results are encouraging. As of Thursday, 43% of applicants responded to the notifications, Delong said. The agency will not have a final count before June 29, the response deadline for the last group of applicants to receive notifications.
Yet judging by the responses on social media and in emails sent to the Seattle Times, the notifications created a lot of confusion and frustration.
Some applicants have reported technical issues when submitting new applications to the ESD website.
Others indicated that they were unable to reach ESD helpdesk. “I just called the office at 8 am and they are already not accepting calls due to the high volume of calls,” wrote the member of a Facebook support group. “Biting my nails hard here.” “
Others said the process triggered an anti-fraud measure that required them to resubmit copies of their personal identification documents. .
Still others were concerned that filing a new claim would put them at risk of losing their current benefits – and said they were delaying filing until they saw what happened to other claimants.
“I fully understand that fear [but] the worst thing you can do is not respond, âDeLong said. “.
This week, ESD also released its employment report for May, which showed that the state created 8,300 jobs for that month, up 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 in May was 5.8%.