The Washington State Employment Security Department has doled out $8.8 billion to nearly 1 million unemployed residents since the pandemic began — averaging about $500 million in payments each week in recent months. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The Washington State Employment Security Department has doled out $8.8 billion to nearly 1 million unemployed residents since the pandemic began — averaging about $500 million in payments each week in recent months. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Stalled for months, state resolves 81,000 unemployment cases

A resolved case doesn’t mean payments are on the way. Some may have to appeal for relief.

OLYMPIA — Massive unemployment deposits could be heading to those who have spent months waiting for relief.

Claims have been resolved for all 81,000 Washingtonians who applied for unemployment between March and June, but never received a payment, Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi Levine told reporters Monday.

But resolving a case doesn’t mean everyone has gotten paid, and the state is still working on issues for another 30,000 who applied in mid-June or had payments stopped.

“I am not declaring mission accomplished, I am however declaring milestone met,” Levine said. “… Resolved does not mean approval for everyone. With the historic number of applications, there are also a large number of denials and there will be a large number of appeals. We know our work is nowhere near done.”

There’s no timeline for when all cases will be resolved. With new claims being filed each week, there will always be some that are flagged for issues, she said. Now, the goal is to shorten the time it takes to address each problem from four weeks to three.

In total, the agency has doled out $8.8 billion to nearly 1 million unemployed Washingtonians since the pandemic began — averaging about $500 million in payments each week in recent months.

The state agency was flooded with claims in late March through April, as businesses closed during Gov. Jay Inslee’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy order.

“These were not just waves, they were tsunamis,” LeVine said.

LeVine’s agency planned to resolve the initial backlog of 82,000 claims in June, and then mid-July.

An international fraud scheme added to the turmoil.

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.

Rooting out the fraud also meant freezing thousands of legitimate claims from Washingtonians. That decision, Levine said, was the most difficult of her career.

The state also started working with banks and federal investigators to recover money from the fraudulent payments. So far, they’ve retrieved $340 million.

The update from LeVine comes a week after the lapse of the $600 unemployment bump from the federal CARES Act.

Congress and the White House have yet to reach a deal on how to continue with unemployment benefits. Democrats have argued for an extension of the $600 boost and Republicans have floated a temporary $200 benefit that’s eventually replaced so claimants receive 70% of their previous income.

Now, LeVine’s agency is preparing for the future, she said. If businesses are forced to close again due to the virus or there’s a change to the federal plan, her office could see another wave of claims.

“We don’t know what will happen with COVID-19,” she said. “While we hope there’s not another sudden rise in the need for benefits, hope is not a strategy.”

Joey Thompson: 425-339-3449; jthompson@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @byjoeythompson.

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