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Thousands in WA might have to repay unemployment benefits

This photo shows a sign at the headquarters for Washington state's Employment Security Department Tuesday, May 26, 2020, at the Capitol in Olympia.
Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press file
This photo shows a sign at the headquarters for Washington state's Employment Security Department Tuesday, May 26, 2020, at the Capitol in Olympia.

About 55,000 Washingtonians might have to pay back thousands of dollars in jobless benefits.

The Seattle Times reports Cami Feek, the state Employment Security Department’s new acting commissioner, updated state lawmakers Thursday Washington’s response to pandemic-related job losses.

Feek told a Senate work session that the department will be working with the 55,000 claimants who’ve received repayment notifications after failing to respond to agency requests for information and being ruled ineligible for benefits already received.

“We’re going to proactively reach out to them and help them have the right information on how to fix" their eligibility, Feek told the Senate Labor, Commerce & Tribal Affairs Committee during the work session.

In some cases, claimants may not be required to repay benefits.

Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, said the overpayment notices often hit workers who are still unemployed — “and they’re suddenly being told they have to pay back $12,000, and they’re just in panic mode.”

The number of overpayment notices also reflects the scale of the task Feek and her staff face as they work through a backlog of problems at the ESD while bracing for even more claims under the next phase of federal pandemic benefits.

“It’s a massive undertaking,” Keiser said.

Still, Keiser and other lawmakers attending the work session said they were largely impressed by the presentation from Feek, who became acting commissioner after Suzi LeVine stepped down from the role in late January.

Feek spoke encouragingly about improvements the agency has made in getting benefits to unemployed workers, but was candid about how far the state has yet to go.

Although the ESD has paid more than $15 billion to hundreds of thousands of workers since the start of the pandemic, “we know that many have been left out,” Feek said. “They’ve been frustrated, stymied and to those workers, we apologize. We are doing everything we can to get them the benefits they qualify for as quickly as possible — but we know it’s not enough.”

Feek noted that some 9,000 claimants have never been paid any benefits and are still waiting for the ESD to resolve an eligibility question or other issue with their claims. While that tally is down substantially from the peak last spring, when there were well over 50,000 unpaid claimants awaiting agency resolution, Feek said, “we’re looking at ways that we can accelerate” that downward trend.

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