OLYMPIA — You have until Sunday to certify your eligibility for up to $1,800 in unemployment back pay from the Lost Wages Assistance program.
Tens of thousands of Washingtonians sidelined by the pandemic qualify for the federal program, which provides an extra $300 per week for six weeks between late July and early September. Payments will start going out next week.
If all goes according to plan, the Employment Security Department will pump an estimated $900 million to hundreds of thousands of qualifying residents, state officials have said.
“We will see benefits the week of the 21st for those who are eligible,” Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi Levine told members of a legislative committee Tuesday. “So expect (your) constituents to get a bunch of checks next week, which is great.”
Levine, in addressing the House Labor and Workplace Standards committee, expressed confidence the department will be able to handle the demand and avoid a repeat of the situation in spring, when an unprecedented surge in legitimate and fraudulent claims left tens of thousands of eligible workers waiting months for state and federal benefits they were owed.
A week ago many Washingtonians didn’t share her confidence. They worried that they won’t receive the up to $1,800 in back pay for which they qualify, or any more of the money they’re already getting from the state agency.
As happened in April and May, the unemployment system was overloaded by a high volume of users certifying their eligibility for the federal program, combined with a spike in filings by first-time claimants. As a result, many workers had new issues arise for claims or received messages saying the state needed more information from them — but didn’t say what it was.
Nearly one-third of Washington’s workforce has applied for benefits since the coronavirus outbreak in spring shut down much of the state economy, officials say. About a quarter were approved and are still receiving benefits. Another 25% were denied, and about 40% aren’t submitting weekly claims.
In total, the department has paid $10.4 billion since the pandemic began.
To qualify for the Lost Wages Assistance program, you must be laid off or working reduced hours due to COVID and have received unemployment benefits for any week from July 27 to Sept. 4. You can certify your eligibility by going to your unemployment account online and answering the eligibility question.
Originally, the state was approved for three weeks of back pay from the Lost Wages Assistance program. Then the federal government approved a fourth and fifth week of back pay, and then a sixth.
“We’re really happy about that,” Gov. Jay Inslee told reporters Thursday.
That morning, he met with Levine to talk about the program, as well as the thousands still waiting for resolution from the state agency.
As of Thursday, nearly 27,000 Washingtonians need the Employment Security Department to fix an issue with their claim. That’s up from about 20,000 a few weeks ago.
The average resolution time for a claim is more than six weeks. The goal is to get it back down to three.
Also Tuesday, Levine told lawmakers her agency has paid out a total of $576 million in fraudulent claims, most stemming from a spike in criminal attacks in mid-May. Of the total, $342 million has been recovered leaving an estimated net loss of $234 million. As much as two-thirds may be federal funds, she said.
Levine said that the fraud was the result of determined criminals armed with valuable data and was not a result of “something that was circumvented or that we had taken down our guard.”
She added that they’ve beefed up their defenses as they know there will be continual attempts to defraud the system.
“We know that. This is not going to be a race that is ever over,” she said.
Rep. Larry Hoff, R-Vancouver, had pressed for assurances it wouldn’t happen again.
“This is real money that we lost,” he said. “It’s critical we learn from this. It sounds like we are.”