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Frustrated by delayed jobless benefits, laid off workers turn to state Supreme Court

Frustration with long delays in getting jobless benefits is boiling over into a lawsuit against the Washington State Employment Security Department. Attorneys representing two laid off workers and the nonprofit Unemployment Law Project filed the case directly with the state Supreme Court on Friday.

The commissioner of the employment department told reporters this week that her agency is doing everything it can to get checks out to legitimate claimants. However, Commissioner Suzi LeVine said a flood of fraudulent claims submitted by cybercriminals in May has "thrown a wrench" in the gears. An agency spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment specifically on the legal case late Friday.

The lawsuit asks the justices of the high court to order LeVine to provide "prompt" payment of unemployment benefits to Washingtonians. The filing asserted that LeVine has a legal duty to promptly process and pay claimants and alleged she has failed in this duty.

“People understand the Covid virus has presented a major crisis and many systems are overloaded,” said John Tirpak, executive director of the Unemployment Law Project. “People have been patient and know things are not going to happen instantly. But when you have been attempting to claim unemployment since March and it’s already June and there has been no progress, it’s very discouraging.”

The Unemployment Law Project is a nonprofit law firm with offices in Seattle and Spokane that help people receive jobless benefits and appeal denied claims. The two additional named plaintiffs in the case are Marianne White, a laid off manager of a tap room in Burien, and McKeezi Barraza of Seattle.

Barraza was laid off in March when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the restaurant where he worked part time. He said he collected unemployment for more than a month, but then he and several hundred thousand other Washingtonians on the rolls had their accounts frozen in mid to late May pending identity verification checks.

"They said it could be anywhere from four to six weeks before I'm paid," Barraza said in an interview Thursday. "To me, that's unacceptable because I couldn't even pay rent this month for June. I've got a few hundred dollars left in my pocket."

During a press conference Thursday, ESD Commissioner LeVine said she was fully aware "that people are really hurting out there." She pledged the agency was leaving no stone unturned to get benefits out to legitimate applicants while weeding out the fraudulent claims.

"I hope the people of Washington understand the importance of both getting the money out as quickly as possible, and not sending out money to criminals," LeVine said.

In legalese, the lawsuit takes the form of a "petition for a writ of mandamus." Plaintiffs' attorney Justin Abbasi defined mandamus as basically when a petitioner asks the court to direct a government official to do their job.

"It's not technically (a class action lawsuit), but the relief we are requesting will benefit everybody if the court agrees with us," said Abbasi who works at Sheridan Law Firm.

Abbasi argued in the legal petition that the ESD commissioner does not have the legal authority to halt payment to legitimate claimants, even if there are fraudulent claims.

"We just want prompt payment, that's all we want," Abbasi summarized in an interview Friday.

An unemployed construction industry worker from Sumas, Hamal Strand, has also filed a petition with the state Supreme Court. His much shorter filing, in which he represents himself, was delivered on Monday. It similarly seeks an order from the court to release delayed unemployment payments.

In this instance where the plaintiffs are taking their pleas directly to the Washington State Supreme Court, the justices have the option to take the case or could kick it down to a superior court for initial fact finding and review. Abbasi said his team would seek emergency accelerated action in light of the financial and emotional stress on the unemployed workers involved.

Unemployment offices across the nation have been swamped by unprecedented numbers of newly jobless people. The ramp up in demand following the coronavirus shutdown of the economy happened with a velocity also never seen before. Agency telephone hotlines remain jammed nearly three months into the pandemic.

Washington's Employment Security Department said Thursday that more than 1.1 million individuals have filed claims for unemployment since early March when the pandemic job losses began. Of that number, 826,123 people have been paid.

LeVine said Washington state suffered the first and largest attack by cybercriminals intent on siphoning away increased pandemic unemployment benefits. On Thursday, she reported that state and federal investigators have recovered $333 million of what they believe to be somewhere between $550-650 million in payouts on fraudulent claims.

"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 said.

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