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NEWS | July 16, 2020

Washington Guard helps clear unemployment claim backlog

By Joseph Siemandel Washington National Guard

LACEY, Wash. – As businesses closed due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the paychecks people depended on began to vanish. By the end of the first week of the shutdown, the state had received a record number of unemployment claims.

“When COVID hit, we saw numbers that were far beyond our ability,” said Phil Castle, director of enterprise project management at the Washington State Employment Security Department (ESD). “Our goal was to get as many people paid as soon as possible.”

However, no good deed goes unpunished. Sophisticated international criminals filed for jobless benefits in Washington and other states, using stolen personal information to fraudulently claim benefits in someone else’s name.

“When we saw what was happening, we put a wall up to block out the bad guys. But we also blocked out some actual people that needed unemployment benefits,” said Castle.

This is when ESD Commissioner Suzan LeVine asked the Washington National Guard to help clear the backlog of identity verifications. On June 18, more than 40 members of the Guard arrived at the ESD building in Lacey to begin work.

“You will be helping our neighbors and friends get the benefit that they need at this time while helping us catch the bad guys,” said LeVine. “This work is critical, and I thank you for everything you are doing for our state.”

Guard members verified identifications, picking out the fake documents from the real ones.

“Every case the National Guard has touched in the backlog has led to a claimant being paid out to those in need,” said Castle. “They were finding every fake claimant and shutting down those bad actors.”

Nearly 85 percent of the backlog has been cleared, allowing benefits to be paid, with the remaining claims still awaiting verification documents. And the Guard has taken on another mission members call “imaging.”

“We were receiving unprecedented amounts of mail and faxes. The Guard is now taking those documents and adding them into active cases,” said Castle. “What would have taken months, took just weeks because the Guard was able to get us caught up.”

While the mission isn’t a typical one for the National Guard during a state response, it is a critical one.

“We are usually called to support floods, fires and other types of missions like that, but this is a first working with the ESD,” said Maj. Katie Wade, the officer in charge at the ESD site. “2020 is truly the year of the Guard. We are being utilized in so many different ways, and our folks are doing a great job.”