Thousands are still waiting for unemployment in Washington

Some are waiting for thousands in backpay while others worry after losing the extra $600 each week.

EVERETT — It could’ve happened to anyone.

Like thousands of Washingtonians, Rachael Kendrick got laid off in March when the coronavirus pandemic hit. So, she applied for unemployment benefits. Early on, she received two payments totaling $400, she said. Then, she had another common experience — her four claim applications were either denied or stuck pending.

Kendrick, 54, has worked in the service industry since she was 15, as a waitress, a bartender and eventually, a chef. For six months, she’s been on hold with the Employment Security Department — sometimes calling as many as 1,000 times a day, she said, to no avail.

“It’s beyond frustrating,” she said. “It’s put such a kink in our lives.”

One day, she made it through the queue to a representative who told her the agency would resolve her claim in one or two weeks, she said. Relief was on the way.

That was two months ago.

Tens of thousands of other Washingtonians have had similar experiences.

And then one day, randomly, your claim is resolved. If you’re approved, there’s a deposit in your bank account for the thousands of dollars owed to you in back pay.

Kendrick is still waiting.

If her claims are approved, she’d get more than $20,000.

“I’ve been working since 1982 and that money is owed to me,” she said. “I just hope for some resolve.”

Since March, about one in five Washingtonians have filed for unemployment, according to data from the state Employment Security Department.

A quarter of them — some 350,000 people — are getting paid weekly.

Another quarter were denied benefits.

About 40% were approved, but are no longer submitting weekly claims.

In total, the Employment Security Department paid out $9.71 billion between March and August.

But there are 20,000 Washingtonians who still await economic relief.

With new claims filed each week, there will always be cases that are pending, the state agency has said. The goal is to get the average processing time down to three weeks.

It’s unclear how many of the 20,000 cases with issues are from new claims or people who’ve waited as long as Kendrick.

The state agency has faced a series of struggles, including an unprecedented spike in unemployment, a totally remote operation for employees, and an international fraud scheme where scammers took more than a half-billion dollars, most of which has been recovered.

Thousands of claims had to be frozen to prevent more money from going to fraudulent claims. Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine said it was the most difficult decision of her career.

Meanwhile, the $600 from the CARES Act has expired, drastically reducing the weekly amount given to claimants.

For the Lambertsons in Lake Stevens, the extra money went to bills that piled up while his claim was stuck pending for months.

Doug Lambertson, 65, and his wife Sandy, 61, both left their retail jobs in March when the pandemic hit, because they are at a higher risk of experiencing severe health complications, or death, from the virus.

Earlier this month, Doug got more than $10,000 in backlogged unemployment benefits.

“We just got done catching everything up, thank God, because I got my benefits finally, but now it’s going to turn right around and tailspin,” he said. “If they knock it down to $400, we would still make it. It would be tough, it would be hard, we would tighten our belts, but we would make it.”

With Congress and the White House at odds over how to replace it, President Trump announced an executive order to boost the weekly amount by $300 for three weeks.

On Friday, the state was expected to submit its application to the federal program.

However, it’s unclear when the money will be available to Washingtonians and how many people will qualify.

To be eligible for the extra cash, you must have received unemployment between July 26 and Aug. 15. Additionally, you have to prove you were laid off or had employment reduced due to COVID.

Without any additional boost, the bills will pile up, again, Doug Lambertson said. In the meantime, the Lake Stevens couple has turned to a local food bank for help.

“It really means the difference between surviving this and not,” he said. “Whether you’re going to live on the street or live in a house, that is what it means. Without it, there are going to be a lot of homeless.”

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

Ian Davis-Leonard reports on working class issues through Report for America, a national service program that places emerging journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. To support Ian’s work at The Daily Herald with a tax-deductible donation, go to www.heraldnet.com/support.

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

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