Washington state calls in the National Guard to help with unemployment claims

Washington state is summoning the National Guard to battle its backlog of unemployment claims.

The state is still struggling to process tens of thousands of unemployment applications amid a massive fraud attack, as well as a surge in filings triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.

Washington flagged 190,000 claims in mid-May as possible “imposter fraud,” where criminals using stolen personal information sign up for benefits. The state unemployment agency, which temporarily paused payments while it validated all claims, is giving special attention to these suspect applications.

About 50 National Guard members will arrive next week and undergo training, which should take one or two days, said Nick Demerice, a spokesman for the state’s Employment Security Department. They will focus on verifying the identity of the 42,000 residents who fell into the suspect batch but were receiving benefits before mid-May.

Another 36,000 applications have other issues that have to be addressed, Suzi LeVine, the agency’s commissioner, said at a news briefing Thursday. The rest have been resolved.

Some 100 National Guard members are expected to work with the agency, which is still determining the details of their deployment.

Washington, one of several states besieged by fraud, has recovered about $337 million of the up to $650 million lost to the attack. The state auditor announced earlier this week that her office will examine the factors that led to delayed and improper payments, as well as potential weaknesses in the unemployment agency’s computer systems.

Nearly 1.2 million individuals have filed claims in Washington since early March, and more than 844,000 people have been paid a total of more than $5.4 billion in benefits.

The number of initial claims filed each week is on the decline, but about 35,000 who applied by May 1 have yet to be approved. The agency hopes to have their claims resolved by the end of the month, two weeks later than originally planned, LeVine said.

Oregon, whose unemployment director resigned last month at the governor’s request, is also receiving assistance from National Guard members, who have volunteered to call applicants waiting to hear the status of their benefits.

More than 44 million people nationwide have filed for initial unemployment benefits since mid-March, when states issued stay-at-home orders and forced non-essential businesses to close to slow the spread of coronavirus.

In addition, nearly 3 million people have filed first-time claims over the three weeks ending in early June under the pandemic unemployment assistance program, which was created by Congress to assist those not eligible for traditional jobless benefits. More than 9.7 million were claiming benefits under the pandemic program in the week ending May 23.