Simple mistakes on unemployment forms haunt Washington workers

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The weekly unemployment payments that have been a lifeline for thousands of Washington workers who lost their livelihood during the coronavirus pandemic has turned out to be a nightmare for many of them, according to an investigation by ProPublica.

In August, Washington state’s unemployment agency, formally known as the Employment Security Department (ESD), surprised Everett resident Ahmad Ghabboun with a bill for nearly $15,000. Since May, when his income as a gig economy delivery driver nosedived due to the pandemic, Ghabboun had been collecting payments through the emergency Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program.

Without providing an explanation, the ESD demanded he return every cent.

Thirty-one-year-old Ghabboun and his pregnant wife, Isra, who was laid off by Nordstrom’s during the pandemic, depend on their combined unemployment benefits to make ends meet.

Ghabboun applied to the PUA program in March. Once he was approved, he received $235 a week from the state program, as well as an extra $600 weekly check through the federal CARES Act. One Sunday, while he was verifying his weekly eligibility for the benefits through ESD’s online portal, he noticed that a few of the certification changes had changed. “The phrasing of a new question about working from home temporarily tripped him up,” according to ProPublica. “He accidentally affirmed that he could telework, even though, as a driver, he obviously could not.”

Ghabboun realized his mistake after he was denied for that week’s unemployment payment. To fix the problem, he spoke with an ESD agent who promised to correct it and subsequently received a letter saying he was approved for benefits. In reality, as he would later find out, that minor mistake seemed to have triggered the system to disqualify him from all previous payments.

ProPublica pointed out that the majority of these types of problems stem from unintentional errors, citing U.S. Department of Labor data and noting that fraud is also a factor.

“These are people acting in good faith who end up getting squeezed by the system that’s supposed to help them,” Alix Gould-Werth, director of family economic security policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, told ProPublica. “The stress that people are under because of overpayments can be heart-wrenching.”

Ghabboun, who immigrated from Jordan to Everett in 2011 and became a U.S. citizen in 2015, eventually appealed the $14,990 bill. In October, a decision was reached and he was notified that while he would now be eligible to collect future unemployment benefits, he still owed the outstanding balance.

Anne Paxton, an attorney at the Unemployment Law Project, a Washington-based legal aid organization, said It’s common for even native English speakers to misunderstand or mischaracterize something on their application. Although Washington modernized its system in 2017, the agency has continued to do a “disastrous job of managing claims,” Paxton told ProPublica.

Ghabboun’s situation is not unique. Washington workers across the state find themselves in the same boat.

Emery Reddy helps workers. Call us if your unemployment benefits have been blocked, or you need help with a workers’ comp, injury, or other employment law claim. You won’t get better advice.

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