Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine released a lengthy statement Tuesday from Olympia to explain how the state plans to help everyone who is waiting to receive unemployment benefits.
“We are now more than two months into the COVID-19 crisis and have seen incredible and rapid changes in the state’s unemployment landscape. From record low unemployment in January and February to record high numbers of claims starting in mid-March, the difference between pre- and post-COVID-19 is stark.
“Since the crisis began, the Employment Security Department has paid out more than $2 billion in benefits to over half a million Washingtonians – every dollar of which is vital to feeding people’s families, paying bills and paying rent. This is what drives us every day as we work all hours to put in place the changes necessary to deliver benefits in this crisis.
“While we at ESD are incredibly proud to be a part of this critical effort and to have paid benefits to 2/3rds of applicants, we know we still have a lot more to do. The Unemployment Insurance program is designed to detect and protect against fraud while we determine every claimant’s eligibility. This system usual works well. Yet, the size and scale of the crisis has impacted the timeliness of the adjudication process. Roughly 57,000 individuals, or 7% of applicants, have been waiting — some for many weeks — for their claim to be processed because it has been flagged with an issue requiring resolution before we can release a payment. These claimants are suffering and they need relief.
“That is why today we are launching Operation 100% – an effort to get all benefits to Washingtonians who are eligible for and want to receive them. This effort includes a few key initiatives:
1: Continue rapid hiring of staff who can help customers with questions and process claims. We have already tripled these staff but will continue to scale up to meet the incredible need.
2: Activate our technology to bulk clear issues and free up payments. This technique applied to certain issues already has helped tens of thousands of customers, and we have identified a number of other areas where technology will help us resolve issues.
3: We will increase outbound claims resolution calls and limit inbound phone calls for one week: May 13 to May 20. With 100 calls coming in per second many days, customers are extremely frustrated and staff don’t have time to process claims that have been waiting the longest. We will accept incoming calls for:
* Those, primarily who don’t have online access, applying for benefits via phone.
* Those submitting weekly claims via phone.
* General questions that are not already answered on the website.
* Reports of fraud through our special fraud hotline: 800-246-9763.
It is our hope that this week of modified phone hours also will increase the chance of reaching us for those who must apply by phone because they don’t have internet or because they need a translator.
“By doubling down on processing claims in the adjudication backlog and providing radical transparency around our efforts, Employment Security is turning a laser focus to getting all eligible Washingtonians the benefits they need. We have posted information about Operation 100% on our website and will provide a progress update weekly. The aim is to make significant headway on the 57,000 claims in adjudication within two weeks and have 100% of them resolved or paid by mid-June.
“Getting through this crisis and getting Washington back to work as the economy reopens is going to take a collective effort, the likes of which we have not seen before. For the Employment Security Department, that starts with getting money into the pockets of all those who are eligible and want to receive benefits. Applicants should know that the money won’t run out and benefits will be paid retroactively to their date of eligibility – even if they go back to work. We are working around the clock to get these individuals their benefits so they can pay their bills while they stay home and stay healthy.”