You may know me as a contributing community writer for Living Snoqualmie, but by day I am a small business owner. Sixteen years ago, I started my own business working as a dog trainer/dog walker.
Like many others around the world, the Covid-19 pandemic put me out of work in late March. In the beginning, I thought I would rely on savings and my stimulus check to tide me over until I could return to work, but then I heard about the CARES Act (The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.) Looking into it I learned that as a self-employed worker who’s lost income in the crisis, I now qualified for unemployment benefits.
Great! I got unemployment once before. I know how this works. I’ll just go online and bingo-bango, I’ll have some money.
Little did I know how wrong I was…
My significant other has a term for those days when nothing goes right and a tremendous amount of effort is needed to do every task, all day. He calls it a ‘Brute Force’ day.
My experience with the Washington State Employment Security Department, has been a brute force ordeal.
Now I’ll admit, I didn’t do everything right. Typically, I’m the kind of person who starts something without reading the directions. So, I jumped before anyone said frog. As soon as I heard self-employed were eligible, I applied and was denied, but oddly got a debit card I didn’t remember asking for.
Hmmm. By that time, I knew when and how to apply – so that denial wasn’t a surprise and I patiently waited for the right time to file.
When that day came, self-employed people were told to apply for regular benefits and when they were denied, they would then be given the option to apply for PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.) I spent a frustrating two hours trying and failing to fill out the application, but hey many of us were trying, no biggie.
After being kicked off repeatedly, I managed to finish and waited to hear back. The next day I got a message asking if I was ‘able and available’ to work. Not knowing what to say (I mean I am but there is no work??)
I filled out the form as best I could and sent it back. Three days later I got a Pandemic Unemployment Claim Determination with a weekly amount and a phone number to call if I needed help.
That’s a bit of foreshadowing there…
I logged in to the ESD website a couple of times over the next week to see if there was any new information or evidence that my claim was being processed. There was none. People who filed the same day me were getting paid, but I still had nothing.
I filed my weekly claim the following weekend and waited. Exploring my e-services account more thoroughly I found, under pending issues, my claim was in ‘adjudication’ (additional fact finding) and that one of the reasons might be they needed to contact my employer.
“Well that’s me,” I thought, and waited for an email or a call to clear it up. I emailed several times, but never managed to contact anyone. Someone directed me to a Facebook support group (Thanks Anna!), which I joined and found people who had been in adjudication for 8 and 9 weeks!
Apparently waiting for a call was not really a viable option. In order to get any action on your claim you had to advocate for yourself and try to get through to an operator.
Checking the Employment Security Department’s account on Twitter, I saw tales of people calling for nine hours straight and never getting through. Thinking it was perhaps an exaggeration I decided to try for myself and after 103 one second phone calls in 10 minutes I realized, nope this is real.
About a hundred years ago there was a show on MTV called The Basement Tapes. It was “A showcase of videos by unknown, unsigned artists and groups” and a contest where the winner got a recording contract. When I was a very young, starry eyed teen I sat in the office of the local band Rail with business manager and auto dialed them to victory. Thinking there had to be a better way now, I found and installed an auto re-dialer app on my phone.
Oh, it’s ON Employment Security!
Setting the re-dialer to try 500 times, I sat back, fooled around on Facebook and finally managed to get through after only 60 phone calls. I then was on hold for 1 hour 46 minutes, listening to the worst elevator music ever, before talking to the nicest lady working from home. She immediately saw what was the matter and fixed it.
My adjudication went away and I went from pending to processing to paid, YAY! (Let me say very quickly here that I KNOW this is not the fault of the employees and that they are working very hard to help all of us, Thank you!)
But wait there’s more!
Remember that debit card I got back at the beginning of this tale? Well I had to activate it online. After entering in all my numbers, it told me to create a four-number pin, which I did, only to have them refuse that pin and eventually lock me out of my account with the instructions to CALL IN!! Nooooooooooooooooooo!
I dutifully called. I really did. I held another hour and 36 minutes but my ear got hot and I just couldn’t do it anymore. So, I went back in to my ESD account and changed my settings to direct deposit.
A few days later, I got my one-and-only email from them saying that was fine going forward, but the 6 weeks they had paid me already was on the debit card and could not be moved. Sigh. Still I persisted and finally managed to change my pin via their automated system finally giving me access to my money.
Victory is mine!!! Not so fast Melissa, the universe isn’t quite done with you yet.
I filed one more claim without incident. Then on Friday May 15th I got a notice saying they were going to pay me more. Great! The very next day I got another notice asking why I didn’t claim for the weeks before I was actually allowed to claim and that they may require me to repay $2,790. Other Claimants were asked to upload copies of their ID apparently because of a Nigerian fraud ring. I am back in adjudication and no benefits have been paid since that day.
Really? A Nigerian fraud ring? Sigh…. So if anyone from Employment Security is reading this, I’m from Washington, not Nigeria, I swear! Help a girl out, I can’t listen to your terrible hold music anymore.