Website woes delay much-needed unemployment relief in Washington

SEATTLE -- Now that the federal government has expanded unemployment benefits through the CARES Act, those who have waited weeks for unemployment relief are faced with another struggle: Applying.

Washington's Employment Security Department has faced an unprecedented surge in unemployment claims. In the first day following the expansion of benefits, the state received more applications than the biggest week on record, which was 182,000 applicants the final week of March. For the record, that week was already seven times the peak week during the Great Recession.

The surge in applicants brought a predictable struggle many have faced for weeks: The call center is overwhelmed and the website is crashing for many.

"This is ridiculous," said Emily Delzer, a nail technician who said she has been trying to apply for unemployment benefits since March 15. She is newly eligible under the CARES Act expansion but can't successfully apply online or over the phone. "Everybody's lives have been turned upside down by this and no money is coming in, zero."

Delzer said her and her husband called ESD more than 800 times on Monday after unsuccessfully attempting to apply for benefits online. For her and many others who reached out to Q13 News, the website is crashing. Even the ESD commissioner referred to it as a "clunky process" and said the influx of applicants is larger than anything the state could have prepared for.

"It is Herculean but people are in need so deeply across our state and they don't want explanations, they want their money, and I 100 percent get that and I am 150 percent doing everything I can to make that happen," ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine said.

LeVine said the customer service arm of the department will be running with 1,000 people by the end of the week. She said she believes they will be able to get through the backlog and demand by the end of the week and said they are addressing the website issues in real time.

LeVine also said people are having more success getting through on the website during off-peak hours.

Washington is one of the first states to open expanded CARES Act benefits to its residents, allowing thousands to get paid in the process. Even though many in Washington are struggling to get through in the first days of expanded benefits, many in other states do not yet have the option to apply.

But silver linings won't pay the bills for those who can't get through. Delzer considers herself lucky that while she's been out of work for more than five weeks, her husband still has a job, though he was just informed he'll need to start furloughing.

"We are surviving," Delzer said. "But what about other hundreds of thousands of people who aren't making it right now? It's sad, it's very sad."