LAKE STEVENS — Two months have passed since Alma López received the unemployment check her family depends on to make ends meet.
López, 42, was laid off in early November from her part-time job as a quality insurance inspector at Orion Industries, a Mukilteo aerospace manufacturing company. The money she earned there in two years accounted for 35% of her household’s income. Out of work, the Lake Stevens mother of two believed unemployment money would be a safety net while she searched for a job.
But in late December, her weekly $378 payment stopped coming. The state’s Employment Security Department put a hold on López’s claim, requiring her to verify her identity before more weekly earnings could be paid.
“It was strange, because (ESD) didn’t indicate the reason I needed to verify my identity,” López said in an interview translated from Spanish to English for this story.
Figuring it would be a minor inconvenience, López uploaded the requested documents, answered the required questions and waited for the money to flow once again.
As of last week, she was still waiting.
Across Washington state, claimants like López have been left with long waits and unclear timelines, often resulting in gaps of several months in the critical payouts. The backlog of people in need of verification has overwhelmed ESD in the past six weeks, said Nick Demerice, an agency spokesperson.
While claims remained pending, claimaints’ bills haven’t stopped.
López said the most recent $600 stimulus check allowed her family to pay overdue bills on their house and car, but they will fall behind again soon if her unemployment income is not reinstated.
“I’ve called once a week to check on my case, but they always say the same thing, that my case is being processed and there is a long wait for identity verifications,” she said. “The last time I called, earlier this week, they told me to call back on March 12, because 10 weeks will have passed by then.”
López isn’t the only one awaiting identity confirmation. The agency’s database lacked specific information on the scope of those in need of approval.
As a first line of defense against fraud, ESD monitors for abnormalities in peoples’ claims. Benefits from the federal CARES Act expired at the end of 2020 and provisions were extended with the Continued Assistance Act. Some people had their claims restarted, so under the new act, verification began again.
Other claimants may have been flagged for updating personal information, like a bank account or address.
“Our system is constantly scanning for certain criteria that matches certain activity done by the criminals,” Demerice said.
The goal of verification is to ensure changes were made in good faith, and not by a scammer hijacking a person’s account.
Staff shifted roles to address the verification backlog. Figures detailing the gains were unavailable, but Demerice said significant progress has been made.
Still, honest claimants like Alma López are harmed as they get caught in the safeguards. Their payments are postponed.
“For those folks, it is absolutely the worst part and we are so sorry, and we also have to continue to control for the fraud to not continue to pay out fraudulent claims,” he said. “It is a tough balance we are constantly evaluating.”
Last year, fraudsters received hundreds of millions of dollars in unwarranted unemployment benefits in Washington state and across the nation. The state has since recovered at least $300 million.
At the time, then-ESD-Commissioner Suzi LeVine said the state’s countermeasures “prevented hundreds of millions of additional dollars from going out to criminals and have prevented thousands of fraudulent claims being filed.”
High demand has jammed ESD phone lines with as many as 70,000 calls a day, making help hard to come by.
Meanwhile, López has been helping her bilingual children with their at-home learning. As a native Spanish speaker, navigating unemployment has been daunting for López.
“There are translators at ESD you can call for assistance, but you definitely need somebody to read and translate the claim questions online, because when you file claims, they have to be in English,” López said.
She has relied heavily on her husband Roberto Blanquet to translate the complicated steps from the English-based unemployment forms so she can file her claim.
Last week, Blanquet emailed state Rep. John Lovick in search of answers for López. He received a response from a legislative assistant in Lovick’s office saying they are “pressuring” ESD to resolve claims issues in a timely manner.
The email also included a request for Blanquet to give details about his wife’s claim, so the office can help resolve the issue directly with ESD.
Demerice encouraged people to use the agency’s online tools as an alternative for answers, or to call during off-hours like the afternoons and end of the week.
A phone call isn’t necessary to verify ID, Demerice said.
He asked claimants to leave phone lines open, if possible, so fellow Washingtonians with language barriers or technical deficiencies can get through.
“We are aware of how hard this has been on everybody and we are right there with them,” Demerice said. “This is month 11, our staff works incredibly hard to get benefits to everyone, and the vast majority of people get their benefits without issues.”
Yet many Washingtonians are stuck with no end in sight.
It’s been extremely stressful, López said.
“I’m just going to have to keep calling,” she said, “and waiting.”
Quotes by Alma López were translated from Spanish to English, with her permission, by Herald reporter Ellen Dennis.
Ellen Dennis: 425-339-3486; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @reporterellen.
Ian Davis-Leonard: 425-339-3448; email@example.com; Twitter: @IanDavisLeonard.