Employment Security must restore accountability, transparency, and trust
To say 2020 was a tough year would be an underestimate. If you had to rely on the Washington State Employment Security Department (ESD) it may have been exceptionally difficult.
Last spring it is estimated that ESD lost up to $576 million in unemployment funds to a Nigerian fraud ring.
In October, the State Auditor's Office was trying to investigate the fraud and other issues within the ESD by conducting a series of audits. Unfortunately, State Auditor Pat McCarthy indicated in an Oct. 20 letter that ESD was being difficult and interfering with the audits.
Now, we have recently learned a security breach has compromised the personal information of more than 1.5 million people who filed unemployment claims in Washington state.
While we are working through an unprecedented pandemic, at some point there needs to be accountability within our state government.
Many across the state have endured financial hardship through no fault of their own. It has been 11 months since the COVID pandemic hit Washington state. The ESD has hired hundreds of new staff, but emails and phone calls are still going unanswered. Some people have had to wait months for their payments. Others have received incorrect overpayment notices of up to $26,000.
In desperation citizens are reaching out to legislators for help. Our office alone has filed more than 110 requests for escalation on constituent claims. Unfortunately, cases are taking more than a month to be resolved, if resolved at all.
A couple months ago, the online news outlet Crosscut ran a story stating that as of Dec. 5, there were still 27,000 people still waiting for ESD to resolve their claims from March. The article also mentioned the agency is taking an average of 10 weeks to resolve complicated claims. The case stories are frustrating, disappointing, and sad.
At the beginning of October, my office was contacted by a mother of two, who was struggling through a recent divorce. The department had erroneous information about her claim that needed to be fixed. She couldn't reach anyone at ESD and found herself in a desperate financial situation. She contacted our office and we filed an escalation claim on Oct. 28. Thanksgiving came and went. We contacted ESD again to inquire about the delay.
Her claim had been denied due to “incomplete employer information” but they provided no option on how to resolve the situation and complete her claim.
Hoping for a Christmas miracle, we contacted ESD again, to no avail. Finally, on Dec. 28, we heard from the constituent she had received her funding. If the department had placed a simple phone call to the constituent, the issue could have been resolved.
This is just one story. Legislators from across the state have similar stories. Folks living in their cars, losing their homes, nowhere to turn.
I know the employees at ESD are working hard and are overwhelmed with caseloads. However, where is the communication? Do they need more funding? More employees? What can we do as representatives or a Legislature?
For the last ten months we practically begged the governor to call a special session – to help those in need. That includes making sure our state government is providing the services and assistance required during a pandemic. Employment Security had 10 months to figure it out.
Our state government needs to be better. Legislators want to help. However, the governor must let us be part of the process and at the same time hold his agencies accountable.
Maybe the most disappointing part of all this, is that Suzi Levine, the former Director of the Employment Security Department who failed so many people over the last 11 months, has been rewarded. She is going to handle employment security claims at the federal level for the Biden Administration.
The agency has not shown accountability, the audit situation showed a lack of transparency, and with the latest security breach I am sure the public's trust has been violated.
Accountability, transparency, and trust are not too much to ask from our state government agencies. We must do better for the citizens of Washington, especially at a time when they need it most.
Rep. Keith Goehner, R-Dryden, represents the 12th Legislative District in the Washington State Legislature. He is the lead Republican on the House Local Government Committee and also serves on the House Environment and Energy and Transportation committees.