LAKE STEVENS — Like many their age, Doug Lambertson, 65, and his wife, Sandy, 61, both left their jobs when the pandemic began because they are at higher risk of experiencing severe complications, or even death, from COVID-19, and working from home wasn’t an option.
They each filed for unemployment shortly after. Sandy’s relief rolled in quickly, but Doug’s claims were left pending. For months, the Lake Stevens couple survived off her weekly payments and their retirement.
“We had what most people would consider an ideal middle class, suburban life,” Sandy said. “Now, we are literally months from retirement and all of our dreams are gone. There is nothing left in the piggy bank.”
To make matters more dire, the $600 federal benefit bump ran out in late July.
“That is what was holding us up, that is what was keeping us afloat,” Doug said. “We’ve got to have something to live on.”
He checked his claims twice a day for months, awaiting the thousands of dollars owed to him by the state agency.
After 14 weeks and more than $10,000 in unpaid unemployment benefits, the Lambertsons felt a rush of relief last week when Doug’s application flipped from “pending” to “processing.”
“It is a lot of hope for us,” Doug said shortly after the money was deposited in his bank account.
Lambertson is one of 81,000 Washingtonians who applied for unemployment between March and June but had to wait weeks or months for relief. Those claims are now resolved, and big payouts have gone out to many, Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine told reporters on Monday.
But resolving a case doesn’t mean everyone has gotten paid, and the state is still working on issues for people who applied after mid-June or had their payments frozen to stop possible fraud.
After filing an initial claim in April, Everett resident Linda Strange received three months of unemployment back pay last week. But her daughter, who had her payments frozen in March, says she hasn’t heard from the agency in months.
Like hers, another 30,000 claims qualify for payments but are still pending. It’s unclear when all the cases will be resolved.
“There will always be people in adjudication,” said Nick Demerice, an agency spokesperson.
About 1.3 million Washingtonians have applied for unemployment benefits since the pandemic began. The state agency deemed a quarter of them ineligible.
With new claims being filed each week, some will be denied or flagged for issues, LeVine said earlier this week. Her goal is to shorten the time it takes to address each problem from four weeks to three.
Clearing the 81,000 cases was the goal for the agency’s “Operation 100%” plan. Previously, the state hoped to resolve the backlog of claims in June, then July.
“A lot of people had to wait a very long time for their benefits and a lot of people are still waiting and we are very sorry for that,” Demerice said. “We know there’s still more people that need help and we’re not slowing down for a second to get those people the help they need.”
In total, the Employment Security Department has paid $9 billion to unemployed Washingtonians since March. More than 70% of people who applied for benefits got payments within a week, according to agency data.
Prior to the pandemic, Washington’s unemployment rate was at one of the lowest points in state history. For the Employment Security Department, that meant less demand and fewer employees, Demerice said.
During a usual recession, the agency can grow its staff gradually, he added.
“This happened literally overnight,” he said.
That, coupled with having employees work from home, made it tougher to manage the spike in claims.
Then, the state was hit with an international fraud scheme.
In May, scammers bilked at least $576 million from the state. LeVine’s agency then paused thousands of payments to investigate.
That immediately prevented another $200 million from reaching fraudsters, according to the agency’s data. If left undetected, that number could’ve hit $4 billion.
Now, the state agency must prepare for more waves of new claims if the virus shutters businesses again — or Congress reaches a deal for a new unemployment benefit bump.
With an employee count of 1,500, up from 300, Demerice said they are much better prepared.
But those who were left pending this spring faced severe consequences.
Tracy Zmolik, 54, waited 17 weeks — so long that he made the difficult decision to sell his family’ home in Monroe before finally receiving his benefits in late July.
The former aerospace worker — who just weeks earlier said he believed the months of stress, anxiety and lost sleep was taking a toll on his health — sounded hopeful again.
“When the money was actually deposited into my bank, just a huge relief came over me,” he said. “I didn’t have to worry or wonder anymore.”
In an interview with The Daily Herald in mid-July, Zmolik was fed-up, exhausted and at a loss for answers.
“I really don’t know what is going to happen,” he said at the time. “I have no idea what the future holds or if I am ever going to get my money really.” He no longer believed in the government to fulfill promises it made and was disappointed in its inability to assist those who needed it most.
Even after receiving the benefits, Zmolik says the lack of communication was disappointing.
“I get the fact that they were overwhelmed by claims and they had a bunch of fraud stuff coming through,” he said. “But that doesn’t eliminate the reality of what I am going through.”
Betrayal was the word Doug Lambertson used when describing his feelings toward the state agency. He acknowledged ESD was hammered with an unprecedented number of claims, but the lack of communication and the delay were frustrating.
“I still think they could’ve done better,” he said.
Ian Davis-Leonard: 425-339-3448; email@example.com; Twitter: @IanDavisLeonard.