Fight over delayed unemployment payments taken to Washington Supreme Court

VIDEO: Washington's system for unemployment payments now being taken to court

Washington's system for unemployment payments and its leader are now being taken to court.

Attorneys accuse Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine of failing to do her job and follow federal and state laws.

“We have maxed out our credit cards,” unemployed worker Marianne White said. “And we have pretty much exhausted our savings.”

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White was a full-time manager at a tap room in White Center before the pandemic forced its doors shut.

But she never imagined a full-time fight trying to get her unemployment payments from the state.

“I just cry in the shower because I didn't want my kids to see,” she said.

After an initial month-long delay in receiving benefits, White did start getting payments in late April. She continued receiving those payments until late May, when, like thousands of others, she was prompted to upload documents to prove her identity.

That's when the serious trouble began—with a prompt to fill out a specific form.

“It said, essentially, you're a manager and in this field, traditionally managers work 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday,” White, who does not work traditional hours, said. “And it would not let me alter those times or dates.”

After trying to fill out the form and give her reasons as best as she could, White says her account status changed on the ESD’s website.

“All of my past paid weekly claims went from paid status to disqualified status,” she said.

“We have a due process right to our property, and we would say that the unemployment benefits are people’s property,” attorney Andra Kranzler of Sheridan Law Firm said.

The law firm filed a petition on behalf of White and another worker, asking the state Supreme Court to intervene. They argued that LeVine lacks "express authority" to hold up payments to unemployed workers.

“You have a duty to issue prompt payments,” Kranzler said. “If you believe someone has committed fraud, it needs to be personal. It shouldn't be this overbroad assumption that everybody has committed fraud.”

The Unemployment Law Project, which has received thousands of emails and calls from people desperate for help and continues to help people through the filing process, is an interested party in the case.

“There’s a U.S. Supreme Court case, very famous, called Goldberg v. Kelly that says there’s a constitutional right to due process involving a public benefit, like unemployment,” ULP's executive director John Tirpak said. “So if a benefit’s denied, there should be a prompt hearing.”

On Thursday, LeVine told KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon, “I'm not going to pay those individuals who might be fraudulent claimants and we are doing our best to try to distinguish between legitimate and fraudulent claimants.”

Sheldon asked for the legal grounds for her decision.

“So is there a particular order or particular piece of law that we can point to?” she asked.

“Why don't we follow up with you in terms of that,” LeVine replied.

KIRO 7 reached out to the ESD to get that information LeVine said the state would follow up with and provide. Their spokesperson said Monday that “since this has become the subject of ongoing legal action” they will not be commenting “right now.”