SEATTLE — Kent hairstylist Delilah Sterling said she has called the unemployment office more than 140 times trying to get help with her application.
Sterling, who works at Central Salon, is an independent contractor. Recently, federal changes were made to include independent contractors as eligible for unemployment.
“It asked me a question about standby. I’d never filled out unemployment before,” she said.
The Employment Security Department says they’re up to about 1,000 customer service agents to help with the swell of calls, but they really want to push people to the website.
“My group, in working in partnership with other parts of the agency, developed a new front page to our website that has some different boxes to be able to try to direct people directly to the information that they need,” said Nick Demerice, the public affairs director for the Employment Security Department.
Demerice adds that despite the added representatives, many of the calls they get are topics answered on their site.
“We did a little research on the call volumes that we were getting a couple of weeks ago, and at that point, 65% of the calls that we were getting were questions. Not claims, but questions— general questions— and we found many of them could be answered by information on our website.”
Demerice said the most common issue they see is people hitting the wrong button.
“And now there needs to be fact-finding, some degree of follow up that needs to happen with them. And because of the volumes that we're talking about, that just takes up a lot of time right now.”
Back in Kent, Sterling ultimately did get her situation resolved, but she knows the stress others are experiencing as they're trying to get through.
“Read everything slowly, two times, and ask your friends questions that have done it before,” she said.
With the recent changes made to the system, an independent contractor like Sterling must first apply for unemployment and be denied before applying for the pandemic assistance.
Demerice said he recognizes the frustration many have had for weeks and that the ESD is committed to getting Washingtonians their money.
“We're doing everything we can to meet their needs as best we can as quickly as we can and get dollars into their pockets,” he said.
Demerice added they are looking at simplifying the process and try to eliminate hurdles as best they can within federal regulations.