50 National Guard members start work on jobless aid backlog in Washington

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OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Fifty members of the National Guard started training on Thursday to help clear a backlog of unemployment benefit claims in Washington, and an additional 50 soldiers will join them in the coming weeks as the state works to resolve identify verification issues in the wake of fraudulent claims paid out during the coronavirus pandemic.

Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine said it would take up to a day and a half for the Guard members to be trained, and that they would join the more than 400 staffers from her agency who are currently working on ID verification work.

“They will be evaluating identifications to help legitimate claimants get the benefits they so desperately need and to stop the criminals from getting Washington taxpayer dollars,” she said at a news conference.

The issue of enhanced identification verification has come to the forefront since the state announced in May that it paid out up to $650 million through tens of thousands of fraudulent claims. As of this week, the state has recovered $350 million, LeVine said.

A West African fraud ring using identities stolen in prior data breaches, such as the massive 2017 Equifax breach, is believed to be behind the fraud, which targeted about a dozen states, according to California cybersecurity firm Agari.

After the discovery, the state responded by suspending some unemployment benefit payments to do additional verification.

LeVine said that 42,000 people who were already receiving payments but had their payments paused May 15 will have their cases resolved by Friday. There are an additional 81,000 people who have submitted claims between March and June but have not been paid due to one or more issues in their accounts, she said.

“We do expect to address the backlog and to be able to ensure that those who had payments pause resume, and those who have been waiting for some time get resolved,” she said.

Nearly 1.2 million people have filed claims for unemployment since early March when the pandemic job losses began, and more than 856,000 people who filed initial claims have been paid. To date, the state has paid more than $5.4 billion in benefits, including federal money that is providing the unemployed with an additional $600 a week on top of the state’s weekly maximum benefit of up to $790 per week.

The number of new claims for unemployment benefits in Washington dropped to just over 29,000 last week. LeVine said she believed the drop is in part because of the ongoing anti-fraud efforts and because the economy is restarting under the state’s four-stage reopening plan that is bringing people back to work.

More than 695,000 claims for benefits — with some of that number reflecting people who filed multiple claims — were filed for the week of June 7-13, down more than 34,000 from the previous week. More than $454 million was paid for 399,879 individual claims last week.