Stuck on hold, 81,000 in state await first unemployment payments

The state agency says it has a plan to resolve claims, starting with those who’ve waited the longest.

Tracy Zmolik

Tracy Zmolik

MONROE — Tracy Zmolik has filed his weekly unemployment claims for nearly three months, but like tens of thousands of others, he hasn’t seen a dime.

The 54-year-old aerospace worker was laid off in March as the coronavirus pandemic hit Snohomish County and the rest of the country. He estimates the state owes him more than $15,000 for 12 weeks of missed payments.

Without income, he and his family are selling their Monroe house.

“I am just a normal American guy,” he said. “Worked for 33 years, got laid off and filed a claim like anybody … Not having any information about what we can and can’t expect causes us to make critical financial decisions based on a lack of information.”

Like Zmolik, 81,000 Washingtonians are waiting for their first unemployment payments, Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi Levine said during a Thursday call with reporters. More than a third of those people — some 33,000 — filed their initial unemployment claims before May 1.

“We take this very seriously,” she said. “We know they are increasingly desperate. We are not going to rest until we get this solved.”

An overwhelmed system

Since the pandemic arrived in Washington, 1.3 million workers in the state have filed unemployment applications — 10 times greater than average.

For the month of April, Snohomish County had an unemployment rate of 20%, the highest in Washington, according to state data. That month, the state Employment Security Department paid nearly 300,000 claims — almost double the peak of the 2008 recession.

“There is no playbook for a pandemic,” Levine said. “Our agency will leave no stone unturned or resource untapped to get eligible Washingtonians their benefits.”

The tides are turning, she said.

As of Thursday, her department has paid $5.4 billion to more than 800,000 Washington workers.

That same day, Levine welcomed 50 members of the National Guard who will work on ID verification in possible fraud cases. Another 50 will join in the next few weeks, she said.

She also announced a plan to resolve the 33,000 claims predating May 1 by mid-July.

Additionally, the state has recovered about $350 million previously handed out through fraudulent claims, Levine said.

Her department is working with federal law enforcement and banks to get the remaining $200 million to $300 million lost to fraudsters, she said.

To prevent further fraud, the state flagged about 200,000 claims in May to check IDs and Social Security numbers.

That paused payments for 42,000 Washingtonians.

On Thursday, Levine said those should be resolved by the end of the week, clearing the way for payments to resume.

Britney Johnson, of Marysville, is one of the 42,000.

She worked at Dessert Sun Tanning when the pandemic hit, filed for unemployment in March and received payments for about a month.

“And then all of the sudden, I went to file my next claim and it never cleared processing,” she said.

In May, she was flagged for possible fraud and asked to provide her ID and Social Security number.

She hasn’t seen a payment since.

“It’s been very, very hard,” she said. “My landlord is sending out weekly notices. Comcast is constantly calling. I would love to pay my bills. I’m not the kind of person who lets their bills pile up. But I have nothing to pay them with.”

On hold

With claims still processing, tens of thousands of frustrated Washingtonians are flooding the department’s call center.

The Employment Security Department has seen a 1,000% increase in calls since the pandemic started.

The department can only handle a certain number of inbound calls at once, blocking some callers from the queue. Some get around this by trying again and again until they make it through.

Reilli Hopfauf has been calling for two months. Some days, she said, she calls more than 200 times, to no avail.

Hopfauf, 19, worked in retail before the pandemic shuttered her shop in Marysville. She’s been filing claims since May 2 but hasn’t received anything.

She lives in Everett with her parents, but money has been tight. Her mom teaches two courses a year at Everett Community College, where Hopfauf goes to school. Her dad is disabled.

Unemployment money would go toward bills that have been piling up since March, she said.

Next week, the Employment Security Department will limit inbound calling again, so workers can make calls to people who need to act on their claims.

The last time the state agency did this, staff were 90% more productive in clearing issues and getting claims paid, Levine said.

“We expect similar, if not better, results this time.”

Finding relief elsewhere

But as more people wait on the phone for relief, Snohomish County residents continue to struggle to make ends meet.

Single-mother Jeni Tracy of Bothell said it’s like the safety net that was supposed to support her has vanished.

“There is nothing I can do and I think that is the most frustrating part,” she said.

Her landlord is no longer offering rent relief, and now she doesn’t know what the next round of bills will mean.

It’s not just bills.

Demand at many local food banks has doubled. Stimulus checks have helped some residents cover a month of expenses, but not three.

Suddenly left without an income, many frustrated residents are turning to their elected leaders for help.

State Sen. Keith Wagoner, whose district covers east Snohomish County, said his office gets as many as 10 calls a day from constituents waiting on unemployment payments.

One call was from a mother who made a mistake on her application and has been appealing her case for weeks.

She’s down to her last $10, she said.

Wagoner’s office connected her to a local Women, Infants and Children program to help with diapers for her newborn.

Staff are also forwarding her case to the state, along with dozens of others, he said.

“It’s just the latest of many,” he said. “By the time they get to my office, things are pretty dire.”

In previous months, his office would advocate for constituents on a case-by-case basis, he said. Staff now compile complaints in a spreadsheet to be forwarded to the state.

“They’re essentially overwhelmed,” he said.

Levine said her department won’t let any cases get lost in the system. But many Washingtonians awaiting unemployment payments fear they won’t be deemed eligible, or that their case will get lost in the mix and not be resolved.

Raymond Gopher, a veteran and single father living in Everett, said his payments were cut off after his claim was flagged for possible fraud.

Gopher, 40, uploaded the proper paperwork eight or nine times, just to make sure it was received, he said.

He’s been waiting for answers ever since.

“When I try to call, there is, ‘OK, just hang tight,’ but how long do you hold tight for?” he said.

Back in Marysville, Johnson waits and wonders as her bills pile up.

Although her case is one of the many that’s supposed to be resolved this week, “there is that small little piece in me that thinks it’s never going to happen,” she said.

“The feeling of helplessness is very real,” she said.

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

Ian Davis-Leonard: 425-339-3448; idavisleonard@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @IanDavisLeonard.

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