“It’s Labyrinthine”: Workers Filing for Unemployment Benefits Face Dropped Calls, Confusing Online Systems, and Hours-Long Wait Times

by Carolyn Bick

According to NaSushon Taylor’s unemployment claim, which as of mid-June was still listed as “[a]djudication in progress,” Washington State owes her more than $5,000 in unemployment.

She hasn’t seen a dime of that money.

For the first three months since she was furloughed from her dishwashing job at Cook Weaver in Capitol Hill nearly four months ago, due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Taylor called Washington State’s Employment Security Department (ESD) every day to try to get the thousands of dollars in unemployment the state owes her.

Taylor has been fighting hard for it. When she was still calling ESD every day, it wasn’t unusual for her to call hundreds of times in one day. One day, she called ESD 541 times. Another, she called 511 times. Each time, ESD’s system disconnected her call.

Taylor isn’t alone. Robin, a registered nurse and tutor who preferred that the Emerald not print her last name or place of employment, was furloughed from one of her two part-time jobs at a local clinic in mid-March. She faced a different situation — ESD had told her that she owes the state $1,700 for allegedly inaccurately entering one of her employer’s names. But the end result was the same as Taylor’s: she dealt with endless holds and hundreds of dropped calls, while the bills continued to mount. And according to ESD, hangups, dropped calls, difficulties using the system, and general confusion aren’t an uncommon problem for the almost 1.17 million people who have filed for unemployment since March 7.

Taylor said that every time she called ESD, the call would ultimately get disconnected, no matter how long she’d been on hold. In a phone conversation with the Emerald, she said it had been “a rigamarole” of operators and disconnections from the beginning. She said the operators would direct her to call different numbers and some would pass her on to different “tiers” at those numbers, telling her that someone else would be able to address her unemployment claim at a higher level. But no one was ultimately able to help her, regardless of where she was directed or how long she’d been on hold. 

Thanks to an app she downloaded, Taylor was able to directly call the number to which she had been routed, rather than going through the system hundreds of times over. She had also been using the app to collect call logs that show the many hangups and long wait times. On May 21, she finally got through to an operator.

“When I spoke to them, I called 162 times,” Taylor said with a tired chuckle. “Then I spoke to them, and they gave me another number to call — the whole rigamarole. Contacted another number, other people. … I was able to speak to [a first-tier operator] at 7:42 [a.m.] I was able to get to the second-tier operator [after that]. Her name was Jackie.”

Taylor said that second-tier operator put her on another hold at 10:13 a.m. The hold resulted in more disconnections.

The call-disconnect cycle lasted until 1:59 p.m., when Taylor, after hearing yet another a low-toned beep that told her her call had once again been disconnected, decided she’d had enough.

“I gave up that day,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s phone shows how many total times she called on May 21, 2020, to try to deal with her unemployment payout issues. Photo courtesy of Whitney Flores.

She stopped calling altogether a couple weeks later. No one could help her.

These days, Taylor just checks the online system. She doesn’t want to keep wading through operators, who have lately taken to telling her that her identification verification is “processing.”

It had been like this for Taylor since before the state discovered that international scammers were filing fake unemployment claims, using Washingtonians’ social security numbers, and temporarily suspended unemployment payouts. Taylor fears she will never get the money she needs to survive.

Taylor’s path to getting the unemployment she’s owed has been confusing at best: first, ESD denied her outright, saying she didn’t have enough hours worked at her job. But to her surprise, her employer told Taylor they had never denied her claim. She said it was ESD that claimed she hadn’t worked for a long enough period of time at Cook Weaver to claim unemployment. 

The minimum time a person needs to work at a job to claim unemployment is seven weeks. Taylor had been working for Cook Weaver since December 2019.

Still, instead of fighting with ESD, Taylor filed her paystubs. She just needed to get paid.  

But ESD had also said it needed to find out if her previous employer had fired Taylor or if she had quit. 

For weeks, there were crickets. It was only after Taylor called ESD again that she found out her previous employer had never responded to ESD. And Taylor’s claim may have sat unaddressed forever, if she hadn’t called: Taylor’s roommate and friend, Whitney Flores, said in a follow-up message to the Emerald that Taylor learned from an operator who left Taylor a voicemail on May 20 that it appeared ESD never followed up with Taylor’s previous employer. Her claim had been stagnating for weeks, an operator told Taylor on May 21.

“An operator told us that issue was just ignored for 3 weeks,” Flores said in the text message. “She had to submit in writing the circumstances of how she left her old job before they could clear that adjudication [step].”

ESD’s Public Affairs Director Nick Demerice said that several factors could be at play in Taylor’s case, but that for privacy reasons, he could not comment on her specific problems. In normal times, he said, her case would likely be resolved quickly, because the number of call center employees ESD usually has is enough to handle the calls they get. But this pandemic and its resulting economic consequences struck overnight, and the 300 claims agents who work in ESD’s call center were flooded with more calls than they could handle. 

Even though the state has since beefed up ESD’s workforce, and have tripled their call center staff from 300 employees to 900 employees, they are not where they need to be, Demerice said. Because of this, he said, Taylor’s case is not unusual, and that because of the confluence of the pandemic and subsequent scam, “the whole thing is pretty confusing, unfortunately.”

“We’re dealing with still massive amounts of people trying to get through the system. … There’s unfortunately still about 35,000 people who have been waiting for many weeks, more than four weeks, and up to 12 or 13 weeks without receiving payment,” Demerice said.

He also said that, ultimately, based on the Emerald’s description of her particular case, Taylor’s claim likely has to be handled by an adjudicator, a specialized ESD employee who has been trained to manage cases like this. But they aren’t always available, he said, so “unfortunately, some people have gotten disconnected through our phone systems, and that’s a constant problem we have been trying to resolve.”

In a follow-up email to the Emerald, Demerice said ESD currently has 1,550 employees in just unemployment programs, and that the department has “removed the first tier as most people no longer have general questions.”

He did not say when the first tier had been removed.

Though she had been wading through a seemingly endless cycle of unemployment hell, Taylor had felt slightly more secure, due to the fact that Flores had at least been receiving her own unemployment checks. But after the massive fraud scam hit, ESD temporarily suspended Flores’ and thousands of other Washingtonians’ unemployment payments in mid-May.

Because of this temporary suspension, Flores, who worked for U.S. Foods, is now facing all sorts of repercussions, and the two women are in dire financial straits.

“I still have my car payment [and] my credit card bills to pay. [NaSushon] still has her car payments too, and light bill,” Flores said in a text message. “All my upcoming funds will have to go to rent for July because we don’t want to get behind. Even though they have barred eviction … once we go back to work we still have to work to get the money if we get behind.”

Robin’s situation was different but no less stressful. At the outset of the pandemic, she had lost both her part-time jobs right in a row: first, her job at the local clinic, then her job at Seattle Colleges, after campuses shut down. She lives in reduced-price housing in Capitol Hill, but her rent, combined with her health insurance payments, takes up a large portion of her already-meager income. So, when she lost her part-time job at the clinic, she immediately applied for unemployment, and included in her application that, at that time, she was still working for Seattle Colleges.

She said the system accepted her claim, and that she started receiving payments soon after.

On April 16, she was able to start working part-time again as a remote tutor for Seattle Colleges, which gives her 16 hours of work per week. She subsequently updated her claim with ESD.

But then, on April 25, she got a letter that claimed she failed to accurately report where she worked. She thinks it’s because the computer might only have one recognized name for Seattle Colleges. She thinks that name is District Six Seattle, but Demerice was unable to verify this for the Emerald before publication.

“There had been a deduction for the hours that I worked during the end of March, when I was not working for [the local clinic], but I was working for the [college],” Robin said. “And, so, instead of just deducting the amount that I was making, like they had done before the college shut down, they told me I was ineligible, and they told me also — two payments after the fact, $1,700 after the fact — that I owed them $1,700.”

Robin said she tried to appeal the decision but to no avail. Like Taylor, she spent many fruitless hours making hundreds of calls.

Robin said she eventually decided to try to appeal online. She finally received a successful appeals claim letter on May 7 but said she had to jump through several frustrating hoops to get there. For one, she said, the system kept timing out on her, meaning the page would suddenly refresh, and erase everything she’d written. She eventually wrote the appeal in a separate Word document and pasted it into the appropriate text box. Prior to that, on April 30, she had even snail-mailed an appeal — but, even then, she doesn’t think her appeal went through.

“I don’t think anyone is opening mail. There’s no acknowledgement of that anywhere,” she said.

Moreover, Robin doesn’t think any of her online appeals before May 4 or May 5 went through at all, based on what she learned when she called the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) at the very beginning of May. OAH, which handles hearings for Washingtonians who have disputes with a state or local agency, told her they had not received anything from ESD, and that there were people who had been waiting 10 weeks for their appeals to be addressed.

“It’s a very convoluted system. It’s a horrific system. It’s not comprehensible to me why, in this time of massive unemployment, ESD is not hiring back and hiring more people to answer the phones and read the mail,” Robin said. “The site for ESD, it’s … labyrinthine. It’s really extremely difficult to be able to get a communication through to ESD.”

Demerice said it is difficult to know how to address Robin’s situation, when he doesn’t have the specifics of the case, but that, if there is an overpayment notice “that should wait.”

“I don’t believe we would undertake any garnishment activities, during an appeal process, and, so, it’s possible that some of those are delayed, behind each other,” he said.

He also speculated that Robin may have logged onto the website to file an appeal at peak usage hours, which he said were typically Sundays and Mondays, and that the system “can get bogged down, during high usage times, but the site has been relatively stable.” 

Demerice also said that spotty connectivity can sometimes create problems, but he did not say that he’d never heard of the website erasing what someone had written.

Flores said she understands that the massive fraud scam against ESD was a big deal but can’t help but feel that many — and Taylor, in particular — are suffering needlessly. She thinks this may have to do with how many people are currently working at ESD, based on something she overheard on one of her several phone calls to the department to get her own claim sorted out.

“I overheard even an operator, on one of her calls say, ‘You might try tomorrow. There’s only four operators on this tier two, and there’s 400 callers, so you’re not going to get through.’ And that just tells you the statistics of how many people are available to help us,” Flores said.

Demerice said that in addition to the increased number of claims operators, ESD has plans to hire more employees. ESD also recently announced that the Washington National Guard will assist in ESD’s claims operations. In his follow-up email to the Emerald, Demerice said that 100 National Guardspeople will be added to the 1,550 employees focusing solely on unemployment claims.

He also said it was unlikely that there would be just four operators working to address tier-two claims at any given time, but said that there may have only been four agents available.

Even though news of Gov. Jay Inslee’s extension on the state’s current eviction moratorium until at least August was welcome news, Taylor and Flores are still worried. After all, rent isn’t the only financial commitment they face, and there aren’t any moratoriums on things like car insurance, health insurance and phone bills. Taylor and Flores are now behind on several payments.

Demerice said that he can’t put a specific date on when anyone can expect to see money again or a resolution to their claims. He said that ESD had initially set a target date of mid-June by which to process all claims. But because of the scam and its resulting mess, that date has been pushed back to the end of June.

Demerice indicated that even that date is flexible. It’s a target date, he said, but admitted he doesn’t know how State Auditor Pat McCarthy’s decision to open two special examinations into the scam will affect ESD operations.

Though some of Taylor’s and Flores’ respective family members have been helping the pair, they know their families don’t have endless funds, and neither woman knows how long she can keep relying on her family for support. And it’s not as though there are myriad jobs out there for either of them right now.

“It just doesn’t work like that. We shouldn’t have to wait and suffer, just in order to survive, for something that we have paid into with our money. We have put this money into this unemployment system for this case,” Flores said. “It’s not a handout. I just feel, just distraught. I honestly feel distraught over the whole thing. … We don’t feel that the government cares about us as people. We are just here to support their system. That’s it. The system doesn’t support us.”

ESD officially cleared Robin’s case this past weekend, and paid her for the last month’s worth of unemployment she should have gotten.

Flores’ identification was recently cleared, and she began receiving payments again on June 8. She still faces a mountain of bills and other overdue payments.

Taylor is still waiting for her unemployment application to be accepted — just like she has been for four months.

Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You can reach them here and here.

Featured image: NaSushon Taylor, left, and Whitney Flores, back right, pose for a portrait in front of Green Lake in Seattle, Washington, on June 14, 2020. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

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