SEATTLE — The state of Washington is calling in the National Guard to help process unemployment benefit claims as officials grapple with a backlog caused in part by a fraud ring that stole more than half a billion dollars in aid, officials said Thursday.
Washington state’s Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine said that Gov. Jay Inslee approved the deployment of troops who will start assisting her team next week as it tries to reduce the unemployment claim backlog.
Details about the number of National Guard soldiers, their precise tasks and the length of their assistance are still being finalized but they will for the most part perform desk jobs.
The troops will be trained to resolve identity verification issues that have come to the forefront since the state announced in May that it paid out between $550 million to $650 million through tens of thousands of fraudulent claims. LeVine said Thursday that the state has since recovered $337 million.
The payouts happened as Washington and other states rushed to help people hurt by the economic fallout from the pandemic. Officials have blamed the fraud on international criminal organizations using identities stolen in previous large-scale data breaches.
A West African fraud ring using identities stolen in prior data breaches, such as the massive 2017 Equifax breach, is believed to be behind the fraud, which targeted nearly a dozen states, according to California cybersecurity firm Agari.
After the discovery, the Washington state Employment Security Department responded by suspending some unemployment benefit payments to get a handle on the situation. More than 1.1 million people have filed claims for unemployment since early March when the pandemic job losses began, and 844,000 people who filed initial claims have been paid.
Besides the National Guard troops, LeVine is also dedicating an additional 300 of her department’s staff members to address the backlog of unemployment claims that have been pending for weeks.
There are about 78,000 claims that remain stuck in review because of identification issues. LeVine in a call with reporters Thursday pledged to resolve the most urgent cases swiftly.
She said 42,000 people who were already receiving payments but had their payments paused will have their cases addressed by June 19.
“Most of those folks who have been waiting the longest have been contacted and those issues are being worked,” LeVine said.
The number of new claims for unemployment benefits in Washington dropped to about 29,700 last week, down nearly 5% from the prior week as more businesses restart under the state’s four-stage reopening plan.
More than 729,000 claims for benefits — with some of that number reflecting people who filed multiple claims — were filed for the week of May 31 through June 6, and more than $545 million was paid for 420,772 individual claims.
The state’s unemployment rate jumped to from 5.1 percent in March to 15.4 percent in April after businesses closed or reduced operations under a stay-at-home order that has since expired.
Washington’s state auditor is investigating the factors that led to the department’s delayed and improper payments for unemployment benefits and will also perform an information technology audit to examine potential weaknesses in the department’s computer systems.
LeVine said she is meeting with U.S. Department of Labor officials to share how Washington state has recovered some of their stolen funds, in hopes of helping other states that lost unemployment money to fraud.
LeVine declined comment on a lawsuit over the benefit payment delays brought by two laid-off workers last week. But she defended the state’s effort to resolving the backlog.
“I hope I’ve been able to demonstrate that we are bringing every resource to bear to address this profound need in our state,” LeVine said.
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