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- and Spokane-based nonprofit, has complained that ESD was unnecessarily slow in forwarding appeals by denied claimants to the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH), which rules on appeals.
In July, the average lag time between the date a claimant requested an appeal to the date ESD sent the appeal to OAH was 34 days, up from four days in July 2019, according to OAH data. In September, the lag was just over 43 days.
ESD officials say the longer delay partly reflects the agency’s efforts to resolve appeals internally, without going through the entire appeals process.
But critics say the real problem is that the agency isn’t devoting enough resources to the backlogs.
Sage Wilson, a spokesperson for Working Washington, said the current backlogs aren’t getting the urgent attention ESD gave to the backlogs that followed the big pandemic layoffs in March and April and May’s massive unemployment fraud.
The ESD hired hundreds of staffers and outside contractors to process those stalled claims in the spring, but current backlogs aren’t getting “the same kind of comprehensive, all-hands-on-deck approach,” Wilson said.
Agency officials acknowledge that staffing is down from its earlier peak. Spokesperson Nick Demerice said the agency is no longer using third-party contractors for claims processing. But he said staffing remains above pre-pandemic levels — and the agency is still making headway on the backlogs.
In September, the ESD forwarded 8,080 appeals to the Office of Administrative Hearings, up from 5,609 in August and 3,279 in July, according to OAH data. The backlog of denied claims awaiting appeal, which stood at around 21,000 in late August, has fallen, although Demerice did not have exact numbers Thursday afternoon.
Many of the staffers who were working on appeals are now reviewing claims in the unresolved backlog, which now also includes some appealed claims that OAH has sent back to the agency for additional review, Demerice said.
But backlogs will “never be zero,” Demerice said. Some fraction of claims will always be delayed by filing errors or the need to verify information that claimants have given about things such as past wages. And some claimants are simply ineligible for benefits, Demerice said.
Many claims in the unresolved backlog are those with more complicated issues — such as discrepancies between a claimant’s explanation for leaving a job and the employer’s explanation. That’s one reason the time required to resolve these kinds of claims has grown from four weeks in late July to 8.2 weeks as of last week.
Before the pandemic, the agency’s goal for resolving such claims was three weeks, Demerice said. “Obviously, with the volume that we saw [since March] that was impossible, but we’re working our way back toward that as best we can and as fast as we can.”
Prince, the Air Force veteran, isn’t holding her breath. “We’ll see how this appeals process goes,” she said. “But I am not expecting it to be quick.”