Many Washingtonians are worried that they won’t receive the up to $1,800 in backpay from the Employment Security Department. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file)

Many Washingtonians are worried that they won’t receive the up to $1,800 in backpay from the Employment Security Department. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file)

Unemployment system overwhelmed by users and new claims

The state Employment Security Department couldn’t process all the new information, leaving users frustrated.

OLYMPIA — The process was simple.

Log into your unemployment services account between Tuesday and Sept. 20 to certify you’re eligible for the Lost Wages Assistance program, which provides a $300 weekly boost to your unemployment benefit retroactive to the week ending Aug. 1.

On Sept. 21, the state Employment Security Department will start processing those payments.

But many Washingtonians spent the week worried that they won’t receive the up to $1,800 in back pay for which they qualify, or the money they’re already getting from the state agency.

They got messages saying the state needed more information from them — but didn’t say what it was. Or their claim for last week, normally paid by Wednesday, was still pending.

That’s because a high volume of users certifying their eligibility for the federal program, plus a growth in new unemployment claims, was too much for the state to handle, agency spokesperson Nick Demerice said.

Each night, the state agency processes all its pending issues, including certifications for the new program and weekly claims, and updates the system to reflect the new information.

“That process is taking longer than it usually does,” Demerice said.

So the state may have all the information it needs from you, it just hasn’t processed. There’s no timeline for when all those issues will be resolved, he said, but Demerice was confident the state can catch up before the retroactive payments start processing on Sept. 21.

Meanwhile, the Monday banking holiday delayed unemployment payments by two to three days, he added.

To add to the confusion, on Wednesday the state sent out emails to some claimants telling them to update their information for the federal program, regardless of whether they had already done so.

Leading up to the program’s rollout, the Employment Security Department expected a large wave of users to certify their eligibility as soon as possible.

“Even since last week, we’ve been asking people, please don’t do it all on Tuesday,” Demerice said. “Whether you do it on Tuesday or the 18th, you’re still going to get your money that same week.”

But the agency didn’t anticipate an increase in people filing their initial unemployment claims.

The Employment Security Department reported a 10% increase last week in new claims statewide. In Snohomish County, initial filings went up 25% during that span.

The state is still on track to start processing payments on Sept. 21, Demerice said. Within a handful of days, folks should get their money.

“We’re trying as best as we can,” he said.

If all goes according to plan, the federal program will pump an estimated $900 million to hundreds of thousands of qualifying Washingtonians.

Originally, the state was approved for three weeks of back pay from the Lost Wages Assistance program. Then the federal government approved a fourth and fifth week of back pay, and then a sixth.

But it stops there, Demerice said. The state has been told it won’t be getting any more money.

To qualify for the Lost Wages Assistance program, you must be laid off or working reduced hours due to COVID and have received unemployment benefits for any week from the beginning of August to Sept. 5. You have until Sept. 20 to certify your eligibility on your account.

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

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