Even as the number of new jobless claims continues to fall, the number of workers still waiting for jobless benefits in Washington state remains stubbornly high. 

Last week, Washingtonians filed 15,496 new unemployment claims, a 12.6% drop from the prior week, the Employment Security Department (ESD) said Thursday. It’s the lowest tally since early March, when pandemic-related layoffs were picking up — and a potential sign of a gradually improving economy. Almost 317,000 Washingtonians were collecting unemployment benefits as of last week. Nationally, there were 840,000 new claims last week, down 1% from a week earlier.

But there were also 20,223 Washingtonians as of last week who are waiting for the ESD to resolve issues with their unemployment claims, according to the agency’s weekly report. 

And that figure doesn’t reflect the many thousands of workers who have already been turned down for benefits and are now trying to appeal.

“It’s infuriating,” said Kendall Prince, a Spokane resident and Air Force veteran who says she’s owed around $11,000 in benefits on a claim ESD recently denied.

Though Prince, 25, has since found a job, she needs the benefits to cover the debt she racked up during the 10 weeks she was out of work. “If it weren’t for the mercy of my friends and family, I would be a homeless veteran right now,” she said.

ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine acknowledged the “frustration and hardship these delays can cause” in a statement Thursday. She said such cases are the exception — the 20,223 unresolved claims represents 1.5% of all claimants during the pandemic. ESD officials say they’re shifting resources to reduce backlogs left over from an unprecedented number of claims generated by the pandemic.

But some labor advocates say the continued backlogs also reflect policy choices.

The Unemployment Law Project, a Seattle-