State is working through secondary jobless benefit backlog

OLYMPIA — Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine said Monday that an initial backlog of claims of people who had not received payment for unemployment benefits between March and June has been resolved, and the agency has been working through about 30,000 other cases of people who have applied since mid-June and haven’t received payment or had previously been paid and had their payments halted.

LeVine said that first backlog — which was at 81,000 as of June 18 — was fully resolved last Friday. She didn’t give a time frame on when the remainder will be resolved, saying there will never be a period of time where all claims are resolved, since new issues arise on claims weekly. Instead, she said the goal is to get resolution of claims down from the current four weeks to three weeks.

“Resolved does not mean approval for everyone,” LeVine said. “With the historic number of applications, there are also a large number of denials and there will be a large number of appeals. We know our work is nowhere near done.”

The agency unveiled a new dashboard Monday to provide ongoing updates on the number of cases and status of claims processing.

Tens of thousands of unemployment benefit payments had been suspended in May as the state did additional verification following the revelation that the state had paid out between $550 million and $650 million in fraudulent claims. A West African fraud ring using identities stolen in prior data breaches, such as the massive 2017 Equifax breach, is believed to be behind the fraud, which has targeted several other states during the coronavirus pandemic.

LeVine said Monday they have been able to narrow the total amount paid fraudulently, saying that $576 million was paid out through 86,449 fraudulent claims. To date, the state has recovered $340 million, she said. She said initially the state had received back a total of $373 million from banks, but late last week learned that $33 million was tied to legitimate accounts and was sent back to claimants.

LeVine said that they believe they prevented about $1.5 billion in additional fraudulent claims being paid, due to the May pause of claims and additional countermeasures.

More than 1.2 million people have filed claims for unemployment since early March when the pandemic job losses began, and more than 966,000 people who filed initial claims have been paid. To date, the state has paid more than $8.6 billion in benefits, two thirds of which is federal money that provided the unemployed with an additional $600 a week on top of the state’s weekly maximum benefit of up to $790 per week. That $600 weekly bonus expired last week, and Congress has not been able to reach agreement on an extension, with the Democratic U.S. House wanting to continue the weekly boost at the same amount and the Republican Senate proposing to scale back the extra aid.

LeVine also announced the revamping of an advisory board that includes members from labor and business groups. That group is tasked with coming up with recommendations to improve the unemployment benefit and tax system, as well as how to improve the solvency and stability of the unemployment trust fund.

“We know that we need to regain people’s trust and are dedicated to doing so,” she said.

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