The unemployment rolls in Washington state have started to shrink in the past few weeks after hitting record levels earlier during the pandemic.
Suzi LeVine, commissioner of the state Employment Security Department, said initial weekly claims for unemployment have fallen sharply for the past two weeks. In addition, the total number of Washingtonians collecting unemployment seems to have crested and is now falling back.
"We're seeing now not only the effectiveness of our fraud protections, but also of the economy reopening and Washingtonians getting back to work," LeVine said.
LeVine also said the state has managed to claw back from banks slightly more than half of the money paid out on a wave of recent fraudulent claims.
"We have recovered $333 million to date of what we believe to be somewhere in the ballpark between $550-$650 million. In other words, we have recovered what we believe is at least half of the fraudulent payments, which is an exceptional ratio in these circumstances," LeVine told reporters during a briefing Thursday.
An unfortunate byproduct of a ramped up anti-fraud effort is that tens of thousands of unemployed people have had their payments put on hold.
“Because we can’t distinguish between legitimate and fraudulent claimants, I am not going to send money out to fraudulent claimants. And it takes a skilled investigator to distinguish between these fake identifications and the real ones,” LeVine said.
Out of the tens of thousands of claims that are not being paid, the state estimates that at least 25,000 are fraudulent. LeVine said some claims will be resolved in the next few days. Others will take longer.
Zabrina Holcombe, a 43-year-old laid off IT worker in Lakewood with two kids living with her at home, is one of these people who is caught in the backlog. She is tired of waiting.
Holcombe was receiving payments, but then this sole source of income stopped in mid-May when the Employment Security Department asked her to verify her identity. Holcombe uploaded an image of her driver’s license and her social security card, yet weeks later she is still waiting for her payments to resume.
"I’ve worked my entire life, I’ve never had to file for unemployment. And if this is the way it goes, this puts a real bad taste in your mouth. And I’m afraid for my children. What if this continues? What do I do?" Holcombe asked.
Holcombe has lived in the same home for six years and this is the first time she hasn’t been able to pay the rent. She said she knows other people who are in the same situation she’s in of having payments put on hold so the state can verify their identities.
“I have a friend who just got custody of his three-month-old son and he’s out of work from the casino. He hasn't had an unemployment check in three weeks. He’s got diapers to buy. He’s got milk he has to get and he doesn’t know where (the money) is going to come from,” Holcombe said.
As Holcombe waits for her payments to resume she said that her saving's account is now at zero, she has not paid to renew her car tabs and is now relying on a credit card to pay for groceries.
Regional correspondent Tom Banse contributed to this report.