Simpler routes to unemployment benefits urgently needed for Washington’s unemployed workers, new study shows

March 11, 2024

Seattle—A crisis of confidence because of often-inaccessible benefits plagues Washington’s unemployment insurance system and requires urgent action, a new study by the Unemployment Law Project (ULP) concludes.

Workers who are forced to leave a job rely on Washington’s Employment Security Department (ESD) for temporary assistance while they search for new work. But many report a nightmarish set of obstacles. People with barriers including disability, race, gender, or limited technology or English proficiency face even worse challenges in accessing benefits.

ULP recommends significant reform through 1) expanded tracking to ensure equitable disbursement of benefits, 2) two-way communication between agency representatives and  claimants and more help with the application and claiming process, and 3) curbing the role employers play in approving and denying benefits. ULP advocates a better system to assist claimants, modeled after the successful caseworker-style approach now available to employers.

Voices of Washington’s Unemployed, financed with a grant from the Families and Workers Fund, makes this call for action based on interviews with 100 claimants about their experience applying, filing weekly claims, appealing denials, and coping with overpayments in 2022 and 2023. 

Through the interviews, ULP sought to capture details of claimant experience, see how and why system failures occurred, and make recommendations for reform now—before another financial or public health crisis suddenly causes state unemployment rates to spike.

A perplexing online application

Unemployed workers in Washington are steered to a self-service online application, but are often overwhelmed by the unfamiliar vocabulary and steps required to establish eligibility for benefits. They regularly find their application stalled because they can’t answer questions essential for receiving benefits and can’t get advice on how to do so, the interviews reveal.

ESD provides only a fraction of the assistance required, claimants said—which especially hurts those who speak little English, have disabilities, or lack computer skills or access. Claimants describe being cast adrift to navigate a user-unfriendly application process on their own. 

The self-service application process can be an experience in bafflement and sometimes despair. “The sheer complexity of the system can make it difficult for unemployed workers to successfully apply online, but for most, there is no alternative,” said Anne Paxton, attorney and policy director with ULP. “Then, people with questions often encounter a brick wall because of chronically understaffed phone lines.” 

“All I could think when I was applying was why would anybody who can do all this stuff need unemployment benefits?” one claimant recalled.

High denial rates

The number of claims that Washington denies confirms the system is unduly harsh. In 2023, Washington turned down 58,621 applications for benefits—more than 48 percent of those filed. That rate is two and three times the typical denial rate of other high-income states like New York, California, Oregon, and Massachusetts.

A claimant who was asked what is the first thing he would do if he headed ESD responded: “I would get rid of the department’s M.O. of delay, dismiss, and deny.”

Each year, only 25 to 30 percent of unemployed workers in Washington receive benefits. Access to benefits is even lower for Black, Indigenous, and people of color; women and transgender claimants; claimants with disabilities; and claimants with limited literacy, English proficiency, or access to technology.

The impact of delayed or denied benefits can be brutal. It can include losing housing, being unable to pay for heat, living without health insurance, or having to rely on a parent’s Social Security retirement income to scrape by.

What will help?

ULP recommends that ESD create an Equity Data Dashboard to track and report how variations in claimants’ race, gender, disability status, education, English proficiency, and other characteristics relate to their chances of receiving benefits.

“Hard numbers on a continuing basis will show who gets benefits when, how difficult the filing process is, what bogs it down, what role employers may play, and how the failures are felt by different demographics and other characteristics,” Paxton pointed out. “Transparency about equity indicators should prompt strong measures to fix inequities.”

ULP also calls on ESD to assist workers the same way it supports employers: by assigning account managers who are available by phone and can conduct two-way communication with applicants about their particular case.

“Washington’s unemployment (UI) system has the potential to provide a reliable safety net to all workers who have lost a job. Setting and meeting equitable-access standards will help with that goal and sustain confidence in the UI system’s ability to protect workers, families, communities, and the state economy,” ULP’s report concludes.

Voices of Washington’s Unemployed is available online or by emailing For questions about the study or other unemployment-insurance policy issues, contact Anne Paxton at or 206-441-9178, Ext. 114.

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