Jesse Jones

Veteran with cancer among thousands still waiting for unemployment adjudication decisions

Tacoma, WA — Joshua Saunders is a navy veteran fighting on two fronts. With his wife Tammy at his side, he’s been battling colon cancer.

“At first I was in shock. I almost denied that it was true,” says Joshua. “And when it settled down it felt almost like a death sentence.”

And for months, the Tacoma resident has been struggling to get his $8,554 in unemployment benefits.

Joshua is a nurse at Western State Hospital - the psychiatric institution. After his diagnosis in the spring, surgeons removed a portion of his colon and it was replaced with an ileostomy bag. He applied for Washington’s new Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) program for the recovery.

But safety risks, along with the risk of contracting Covid-19, prevented him from returning to work after that.

“And the fact that my colon was gone, it puts me at risk for an injury, should I be attacked by a patient at work. So I couldn’t go back,” says Joshua.

In July, he submitted his unemployment application and sent the Employment Security Department (ESD) a letter from his oncologist, which said Joshua shouldn’t work while undergoing chemotherapy.

A month later, the state had questions for him. And that landed him in adjudication, where the state takes a deeper look to determine eligibility. He’s been waiting for someone to make a decision on his case for 14 weeks.

“I have contacted them. I have spoken to someone in customer service and they had no answers for me except for the fact I’m in adjudication,” says Joshua.

As of today, there are nearly 20,000 people in adjudication. In fact, according to ESD, the average time a person spends waiting for a decision is 9.2 weeks. And that’s without getting a cent.

That means, if someone’s case is beginning today, they won’t have an answer until next year.

Joshua doesn’t have that kind of time to wait. FMLA is keeping his job open, but there’s no money coming in.

“Due to the fact that I had to refinance my house, I have no income. And my mortgage is coming due,” says Joshua. “So I believe unemployment is pretty much forcing my hand.”

A condition that demands aggressive treatment.

“I took a week off chemotherapy due to the complications I was getting in my ileostomy. I’ve been experiencing a lot of pain, fatigue - and I haven’t been able to take care of myself recently,” says Joshua.

We took Joshua’s case to ESD. They wouldn’t talk about his case or address the backlog of adjudication cases - only to say they have 195 people working on it.

But we did learn that there is a queue for emergency cases, and that Joshua’s case was forwarded for consideration. I have no idea why his case wasn’t included in it to start.

The state should also know this: Joshua says his wife, Tammy, is also recovering from cancer after being diagnosed with lymphoma this spring.

Now the stress from unemployment is becoming malignant.

“Now I live with it daily. I live with the idea that I may lose my home if I don’t take a different route,” says Joshua.

Today, we learned that the state denied ten of the 14 weeks of Joshua’s claim because - the denial says - Joshua couldn’t work.

He was told to reapply for a different program: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

“I must get denied before they get me another way to get paid,” explains Joshua.

Now his home refinance has turned into a four month forbearance. This proud veteran and healthcare worker is not sure how he’s going to pay when it comes due.

“I have a car payment, light bill, bills that are due and I have two dollars in my bank account at this second. Two bucks. Two bucks,” says Joshua. “I mean, I make do. Which, what I’ve always done. I’ve learned to live with less.”

I’d be angry right now. But Joshua considers himself - get this - blessed. This week he’s five years sober and he and his wife are beating cancer.

He worries about money. But the time he and Tammy spent in this process, they’ll never get back.

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