OLYMPIA — Attorneys for two laid-off workers are suing Washington state for delays in paying benefits while it reins in rampant unemployment fraud.
Northwest News Network reports that the nonprofit Unemployment Law Project, which helps people receive jobless benefits and appeal denied claims, filed the case directly with the state Supreme Court on Friday.
It seeks an order forcing the Employment Security Department to issue all payments promptly, saying the state does not have the authority to halt payment of legitimate claims, even to stop fraudulent ones.
Authorities say Washington paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent unemployment claims as it rushed to help people hurt by the economic fallout from the pandemic. They have blamed international criminal organizations using identities stolen in previous large-scale data breaches.
The state said this week it has recovered about half of the $550 million to $650 million that was fraudulently paid out. Employment Security Commissioner Suzi LeVine says she knows residents are hurting financially and that her agency is doing its best to get them help as soon as possible.
“People understand the COVID virus has presented a major crisis and many systems are overloaded,” said John Tirpak, executive director of the Unemployment Law Project. “People have been patient and know things are not going to happen instantly. But when you have been attempting to claim unemployment since March and it’s already June and there has been no progress, it’s very discouraging.”
Many claimants began receiving unemployment benefits only to have the payments suspended as the state sought to limit fraud. Among them was plaintiff McKeezi Barraza of Seattle, who was laid off in March when the pandemic shut down the restaurant where he worked part time.
“They said it could be anywhere from four to six weeks before I’m paid,” Barraza said. “To me, that’s unacceptable because I couldn’t even pay rent this month for June. I’ve got a few hundred dollars left in my pocket.”
The Employment Security Department said Thursday that more than 1.1 million individuals have filed claims for unemployment since early March when the pandemic job losses began. Nearly 830,000 have been paid.