SEATTLE, Wash. — By now, you have probably heard of or experienced the many hurdles out-of-work Washingtonians are facing as they attempt to receive unemployment benefits. From an overwhelming amount of new claims to payment pauses from a massive fraud investigation, thousands of potential and approved claimants have been left in the lurch waiting for unemployment benefits to come through.
Some people have complained they have not received payment for 12 weeks or more after being approved, while others said they are stuck in adjudication.
Despite the massive hang-ups, the state Employment Security Department (ESD) reported it has paid out roughly $5.4 billion in benefits to more than 844,000 individuals as of mid-June.
"We know how frustrated and desperate many of these people are," said ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine. "We are pulling out all the stops, so those who are eligible will receive payment as quickly as possible.
The ESD has now called in the National Guard to help verify identifications, and prioritize payments to people who have waited the longest. The department also hopes to resolve more than 40,000 claims by June 19 and clear those who've been waiting in adjudication before May by the end of June.
But critics said that's not good enough, and now efforts are moving to the court system to help push the ESD to process claims.
The Unemployment Law Project is working alongside the Sheridan Law Firm in Seattle to compel the ESD to process unemployment benefit claims in a timely manner. The Sheridan Law Firm filed a petition called a writ of mandamus with the Washington Supreme Court, claiming the ESD did not have the legal authority to pause payments to thousands of legitimate and qualified claimants as it fell victim to imposter fraud.
"It doesn't mean everyone is entitled to unemployment," said John Tirpak, executive director of the Unemployment Law Project. "It just means their claims should be processed in a timely manner."
Tirpak added this is not a class-action lawsuit, but if the court favors petitioners, it will impact claims for everyone. The Sheridan Law firm filed the petition, but the Unemployment Law Project is a party to the filing because it represents one of the workers involved in the case.
The Unemployment Law Project is a non-profit agency that represented more than 750 people in unemployment appeal hearings last year. The group can help someone if they quit their job for medical reasons, if someone was fired and the employer is fighting the unemployment status, or if someone loses their job because they were terminated for missing work and had a compelling reason for their absence.
"When we take a case, and we represent people at a hearing, the success rate tends to be more often than not," said Tirpak. "It's not only about winning a case and helping people, but it's also providing people with the proper due process they are entitled to. If you're denied unemployment, you should be told why, and you should be given a second chance to make the case about why benefits should be granted in a timely manner."
Tirpak's suggestion to those who've been denied benefits during the pandemic is to file an appeal.
"I believe there's no downside to filing a hearing," said Tirpak. He adds, it's no problem if a person's claim clears up before the appeal hearing, though it could be problematic if one lets the appeal deadlines pass. "You may get a judge who's very harsh, and he'll just say, 'You should have filed your appeal a year ago.'"
The Unemployment Project has been doing a weekly webinar to help people navigate the system.
"There's a lot of interest in what's happening," said Anne Paxton, staff attorney with the Unemployment Law Project. "We can't help with everything, but we can give as much guidance as we're able, and we do handle appeals. That's where we're primarily the most help."
Other advice from the group includes urging people to carefully read every notice they get from the ESD and to get help if they don't understand it.
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