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Guardsmen help Employment Security with backlog

Private 1st Class Calen Massey, 3rd Battalion, 161st Infantry Regiment, verifies unemployment data in the Employment Security Department database in Lacey, Wash. on June 24, 2020.

As businesses closed their doors 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 Washington State Employment Security Department (ESD) saw an unprecedented number of unemployment claims being made and potential issues began to arise.

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

However, no good deed goes unpunished. Sophisticated international criminals perpetrated imposter fraud impacting our state’s unemployment system, as well as systems in other states. Imposter fraud is when criminals steal personal information from outside ESD (whose system was not breached) and use that 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 requested support from the Washington National Guard to help with the back log of identity verifications. On June 18, more than 40 Guardsmen arrived at the ESD building in Lacey, Wash. 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.”

Guardsmen 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.”

Of the original backlog, nearly 85 percent of that has been cleared and paid out to claimants, with the remaining claims still awaiting verification documents. This has also led to another mission the Guard has taken on called “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 the typical mission of the National Guard during a state response, it is a critical mission.

“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.”