Monday, July 13, 2020
July 13, 2020

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Clark County residents frustrated as they wait for unemployment benefits

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor

It’s been 14 weeks since Ronnie Miller-Watts, 51, applied for unemployment insurance. But she hasn’t seen any money.

As a self-employed worker and business owner who runs Tails to the Trails dog-walking service, she has been forced to dip into her savings for the money she expected from the state for the past months.

“If we had the money, we’d be able to pay bills off, not have to ask for assistance with our mortgage, credit card, city of Vancouver and Clark Public Utilities,” she said.

As of last week, 1,180,748 people had filed for state unemployment insurance claims, but only 856,428 have received payment. Some of those claims were from ineligible cases, but roughly 90,000 are still stuck in review, including Miller-Watts.

New state data released Tuesday revealed that Clark County residents received about $128 million through roughly 67,000 claims. Clark County residents received about $43 million for unemployment insurance in all of 2018, according to Scott Bailey, regional economist for Southwest Washington.

County jobless rate falls slightly in May

Clark County's unemployment rate fell slightly in May compared with April, according to the new data from the Employment Security Department on Tuesday.

The 0.1 percent decrease now leaves the county's unemployment rate at 14.3 percent. The change likely signaled the beginning of the local economy's recovery, mainly because Phase 2 -- and possibly Phase 3 by the end of June -- brought back many jobs.

"We're in for some improvement for June," Scott Bailey, regional economist for Southwest Washington said.

The county overall lost 200 jobs last month but saw a reemergence of jobs in the private sector as the state began opening up construction, health care and retail trade, according to the data.

"We had private sector bounceback," Bailey said. "But the job loss, especially at schools, was considerable and pretty much wiped that out."

Manufacturing was down 300 jobs last month, and government employment was down 1,600 jobs; 1,300 were in K-12 education.

The decrease in the unemployment rate in May is slightly out of line with the state, which reported a 14.8 percent unemployment rate last month.

The state as a whole added 52,500 jobs, according to the Employment Security Department.


Others in Clark County, including Fran Bolte, 69, have not been able to submit an application or reach anyone over the phone. Bolte has been trying since March with no luck, and she’s had to dig into her savings while she waits for the money from the state.

“I haven’t panicked, but it’s still extremely frustrating,” Bolte said.

The state has been dealing with the backlog for months, and as of last week, it brought in 50 National Guard members to help verify claimants’ identities to prevent insurance fraud and clear up stuck cases. More troops will join in the coming weeks to join 250 investigators already working with the Employment Security Department to resolve cases.

On Thursday, the state will hold a press conference to update the progress of the claims. Many of the troops were undergoing training last week, and it’s not clear how long they’ll stay with the Employment Security Department.

Miller-Watts and Bolte both said they’re upset with the lack of communication from the agency about their claims.

Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine said she’s doing everything she can to speed up the process and get unemployment insurance money to those in need.

“We know they are increasingly desperate, and we are not going to rest until we get this solved for them,” LeVine said Thursday.

Miller-Watts said she’s not comfortable with returning to work because of an autoimmune disease. But if she could, she’s not sure if she would because it might complicate her insurance claims.

As of Wednesday and until July 3, the Employment Security Department is limiting incoming calls so workers can focus on resolving cases stuck in limbo, which means those needing to talk to someone will have a better chance of receiving a call than calling in and talking to a person.

“This will allow claims agents to focus on outbound calling to resolve complex issues for customers who have been waiting the longest for their benefits and free up staff time to process claims with simpler issues,” according to the website.