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What workers’ groups say Washington state can do to help people waiting on unemployment

A new wave of unemployment is bringing on a new wave of uncertainty, and many people are mistakenly getting notices they owe the state money.

Workers' groups in Washington are asking the state and the governor to change the way the Employment Security Department (ESD) is operating to help people who are suffering through the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The group Working Washington is asking the state to stop sending out notices to people that they owe thousands of dollars in overpayments to the ESD.

Overpayments happen when someone is paid unemployment that is later denied. This can happen if someone received more benefits than they are entitled to. However, Working Washington, along with the Unemployment Law Project, believes many of these overpayment notices are being sent in error.

"You know, we know there have been a lot of errors that have happened since the pandemic hit, especially in March," said Sage Wilson, spokesperson for Working Washington. "The state's own stats show that about two-thirds of the time they look back at a claim because there's an appeal, and the state itself finds an error and fixes that error."

Many claimants have been reporting getting overpayment notices saying they owe tens of thousands of dollars on top of having their payments stopped. It has had devastating effects for some.

La Tonya C. said she is currently living out of her car but is able to use the homes of family and friends to cook, charge her phone, and shower.

"It's been really hard now that it's getting colder," said La Tonya. "I ache with pain all over my body and become severely stuff in the legs."

La Tonya said she's been unemployed since March and was receiving unemployment, but the benefits suddenly stopped. Now she's getting a bill from unemployment saying she owes the state $9,000.

"Without the decency and common courtesy of an explanation of why I owe anything, why I'm not receiving payments, and how I went from qualifying to owing?" she said.

Months ago, ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine told people they could ignore overpayment notices if they were related to fraud, but the Unemployment Law Project said that was a bad idea because of what is happening today. When people get notices and cannot pay back the money, it can have an impact on their credit score and cause financial hardships down the road.

In June, LeVine also said that people could make payment plans even starting at $1, but many claimants said they haven't been able to do that when they call in to set it up.

Working Washington said this is one of the many reasons the state should stop trying to collect overpayments, garnishments and collections.

"It's kind of amazing that this actually needs to be said at a time when we have hundreds of thousands of people out work," said Wilson. "It's often not clear why [they're collecting] or if they're really going to collect, but what is sharp and clear to people getting those notices is the terror that causes."

The Unemployment Law Project has also sent a letter to the governor asking for a moratorium on collections.

Working Washington is calling on the state to consider other measures as the crisis continues including auditing and correcting all claims that have fallen through the cracks by auditing all claims denied since March even if an appeal hasn't been filed.

The group also said the state needs to prioritize paying benefits quickly and create a clear report of ongoing claims each week to help with accountability and transparency.

Do you have a question or concern about money during the coronavirus pandemic? Email us at money@king5.com.