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The unemployed in Washington state turn to each other for help

Steve Weaver, an unemployed bartender, is touring the state to raise awareness of the unemployed who are going weeks, and sometimes months, without unemployment.
Jennifer Wing
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Steve Weaver, an unemployed bartender, is touring the state to raise awareness of the unemployed who are going weeks, and sometimes months, without unemployment.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic landed in Washington, the economic fallout has driven more than a million people here to apply for unemployment insurance. These payments have become the safety net for workers during the worst recession in generations. 

But tens of thousands of people are still waiting for their benefits to appear in their bank accounts.  

Washington State’s Employment Security Department, the agency in charge of processing people’s claims has been hit by fraud and is overwhelmed by the volume of claims.

The agency is facing lawsuits by people saying their claims are not being processed in a timely manner. It also is being investigated by the State's Auditor's Office, an effort to figure out how the agency got hit so hard by fraud.

As for the many individuals still waiting for their unemployment, the Employment Security Department’s director, Susie LeVine, knows people are hurting. 

“We hear you. We absolutely do," LeVine said at a briefing earlier this month. "This drives what’s been and what continues to be our number one priority — getting every Washingtonian the benefits for which they are eligible as quickly as possible.” 

ESD has hired more people to help process claims and answer phone lines. Members of the National Guard have even been brought in to help investigate possible fraudulent claims.

But these efforts did not come fast enough for people like Steve Weaver. He’s a laid-off bartender who became homeless after waiting weeks for his unemployment.

“This system that is administered by the state that is supposed to be equitable for everyone is only equitable in failing Washingtonians that desperately need it,” Weaver said.

In this story, as thousands of people in Washington wait for the official safety net to pull them from financial ruin, we introduce you to a community of the unemployed and who are turning to each other for help. Listen to the audio above. 

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News UnemploymentCoronavirus CoverageCOVID-19
Jennifer Wing is a Producer for our weekly show, Sound Effect.
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