Fake unemployment claims approach $650M, causing delays for legitimate filers in Washington state

TACOMA -- Washington state continues to face a crisis over fake unemployment claims, and as of Thursday up to $650 million may have been stolen.

During a meeting with reporters on Thursday, the Employment Security Department said that is the amount they know of right now. They say $333 million of that amount have been recovered.

ESD has hired extra people to investigate, adding another layer of analysis to each claim. The process is causing delays and more frustration for people either waiting for their first check and those who were already receiving benefits.

By Wednesday, they had 190,000 claims in limbo, meaning ESD workers had to validate the identities. A chunk of those claims has already been deemed fraudulent.

In the next couple of days, the state expects to clear and solve more than half of the 190,000 claims, leaving around 90,000 claims to dissect. The state also expects many of the 90,000 to be fake claims.

But that still means that so many people are caught up in the system not getting paid.

“Feeding our kids, that’s the key. Scariest thing not feeding our kids, having that meal for them when they are asking for it,” Tacoma resident Willie Peterson said.

Willie and his wife Alysha Wilson have never been unemployed at the same time.

Alysha was a prep cook for a boarding school and Willie, who worked for Point Defiance Zoo, was receiving unemployment checks until it suddenly stopped in mid-May.

Willie says he works seasonally for Point Defiance Zoo and was supposed to go back to work in April but the pandemic hit. He has been receiving benefits since January. Although they were both getting benefits, the couple received a message to submit identification.

“They wanted more information, which is understandable, OK, you want more information, but since we sent that in, why is it taking 3 more weeks?" Alysha said.

In Puyallup, Jill Kahrs has a similar story. She was receiving benefits after being laid off from her office job.

“All of a sudden it went pending, no other explanation,” Kahrs said.

The most frustrating part of the entire ordeal, Kahrs says, is the lack of communication or any updates of a timeline.

“We would just like a time frame what are we looking at to get these claims,” Kahrs said.

On Thursday, the head of ESD could not provide a specific date on when all the backlog would be processed.

“It is unacceptable and I 100 percent recognize that, and we are making sure that we are putting our teams on those that have been waiting around the longest ,and we are getting through this, and I know it doesn’t feel like that for everybody but we will get through this,” Levine said.

ESD says they pushed through tens of thousands of legitimate claims on Wednesday. Willie says he is one of those people, finally receiving his benefits overnight in his account.

His wife Alysha is still waiting.

“Don’t lose your faith, don’t lose your faith,” Alysha said.