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Confusion abounds as Washington residents apply for unemployment

Washington workers who are denied standby may still receive benefits. But that isn't always clear to some who apply for unemployment.

SPOKANE, Wash. — As unemployment claims skyrocket around the nation, people applying for benefits are expressing frustration with the system amid a backlog of claims.

“Typically during a recession or economic downturn, it happens incrementally. This all happened at once,” said Nick Demerice, public affairs manager with the Washington Employment Security Department (ESD).

“The world wasn’t prepared for this pandemic,” he added.

Since March 16, when the first wave of job losses due to the economic impact of the coronavirus, Washington has paid $150 million in unemployment benefits, according to the ESD.

The week of March 29 to April 4, the state received more than 170,000 new claims, bringing the total of new claims to more than 500,000 since mid-March.

Some people have expressed frustration with delays in receiving their benefits, questions about what they have access to and a confusing application system. 

Julie, who lives in Spokane, reached out to KREM after she said her boyfriend received multiple notices that he had been denied unemployment benefits and was instructed to continue looking for work.

She provided written notices to KREM that her boyfriend had been denied his request for standby and he should continue looking for work – but another document she provided suggests that he received benefits after all.

“It’s not very straightforward,” she said of the unemployment application process.

Julie added that her boyfriend opted to receive his money on a card from Key Bank rather than through direct deposit. More than three days and dozens of calls to activate the card have been unsuccessful.

Julie's boyfriend, who temporarily lost his job as a driver for a furniture delivery and moving company due to the coronavirus pandemic, isn’t the only person who has experienced an issue applying for standby in Washington state. The designation is for workers who have a probable return-to-work date with a current employer within four weeks or workers who are starting a new job.

Demerice told KREM that the system could pose challenges for first-time users. 

“Unless you have experience in the system, it can seem somewhat confusing,” he added.

He also addressed the issue of people who are being denied for standby, which allows people to receive unemployment benefits without searching for a new job. However, Washington state has waived work search requirements for everyone amid the pandemic.

“Using standby becomes somewhat moot then because you don’t have to work anyway [to receive benefits],” Demerice added.

Demerice told KREM that you can be denied standby but still receive benefits, as is likely the case for Julie’s boyfriend. The approval for standby is a complicated process in normal times, as an employer typically has to affirm the worker’s status and send back documentation to the unemployment office.

To add to the confusion, some letters that people are receiving saying they are denied standby don't clearly mention that they have been approved for benefits, Demerice said. However, those who receive a claim determination document with a monetary amount and benefit year have been approved.

Then comes the issue with Key Bank. Simply put, their system is overwhelmed just like those of unemployment offices nationwide, according to Demerice.

The state unemployment office is preparing its IT systems for the federal expansion of the stimulus program and expects that people will be able to apply under the new guidelines by next Saturday, Demerice said. He added that workers will be eligible for retroactive unemployment once they are approved.

Those who are approved will receive the money allotted to them through their determination and an extra $600 per week under the federal stimulus plan.

Demerice also encouraged people to visit the frequently asked questions page on the ESD website before calling an unemployment representative, as those who can have their questions answered online are contributing to the high volume of calls. 

Find more KREM content about unemployment below:  

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