Wednesday, February 24, 2021
Feb. 24, 2021

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Washington jobless struggle in benefits limbo

Woman unemployed since November still awaiting for money

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor

Aurora Tapia lost her sense of taste a week before she tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 13.

She suspects that she contracted the virus from her job at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center, where she worked as a patient access representative. It was the most recent job she’s held.

“I just never went back,” she said. “I didn’t want to go back to a job where I could be exposed again. I wanted to take care of my health before I started working.”

Tapia, 26, has what she calls “long-haul” COVID that leaves her with long-lasting symptoms she still struggles with today. Shortness of breath forces her to sit a lot of the time.

But it’s not the worst of Tapia’s troubles. She filed for unemployment insurance in November. But she hasn’t gotten any money and despite filing weekly claims, she’s unsure if she’s eligible for unemployment compensation at this point. Her savings have dried up, and she, her partner and 4-year-old son are stretching every dollar, even conserving shampoo and taking clothing donations to get through a tough time.

Tapia is one of an unknown number of Washingtonians who have filed for unemployment compensation but haven’t received benefits. The Washington Employment Security Department said in a statement to The Columbian that approximately 70 percent of claims are processed and paid within one week, and the number of people who haven’t been paid while waiting for adjudication “is one of the data points we’re currently verifying and adjusting how we pull that number to account for changes from the federal stimulus.”

Some of the most recent data from the ESD stated that on Dec. 5, about 1.8 percent of Washingtonians, or about 27,000 people, who had filed for unemployment since March were still waiting for ESD to resolve their claims. In early December, the ESD took about 10 weeks on average to resolve complex cases like Tapia’s.

Tapia said that starting in November, she filed for regular unemployment benefits for four weeks. Then she got denied in December — but she was then told she qualifies for an extended benefits program, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which is meant for people who are self-employed, seeking part-time employment or who otherwise would not qualify for regular unemployment compensation.

She kept filing weekly claims, and on Dec. 10, a representative from the Employment Security Department told her that her claims since November were already transferred to the PUA program, she said.

Tapia then got an online request saying she needed to verify her identity, so she sent copies of her identification and Social Security card.

“Since then, I haven’t heard back from anybody,” said Tapia. “I call and can’t get through. It’s been so long now.”

Tapia said she is seeking work, but the job market is competitive. She is applying for receptionist and paraeducator positions at elementary schools, but said roughly 20 other people are applying for the same openings.

“I have a lot of experience in customer service and admin work,” she said. “I can’t seem to get a callback. There have been a few jobs where I’ve had two interviews. It’s very, very competitive.”

Tapia said the $600 federal stimulus payment helped, but it doesn’t come close to being a solution.

“People are behind rent for thousands of dollars,” she said. “You can get stuck in a cycle. I’m behind on rent but also a car payment. I have to ask myself: Would I rather be behind on rent because I need a car to take my son to preschool or to appointments or groceries? You get pinned against a wall.”