Tuesday, June 2, 2020
June 2, 2020

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In Our View: Tough test for Employment Security Dept.

The Columbian

The Washington Employment Security Department has been facing a difficult test as it grapples with the unprecedented demand created by the tsunami of layoffs associated with Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-home order.

The majority of Washingtonians who’ve applied for unemployment insurance are receiving the aid to which they’re entitled. But many people feel the Employment Security Department has not been their ally.

The key issue is the maddening phenomenon many are encountering when they try to contact the agency to determine why their claim has been denied, disqualified, adjudicated — or whatever term pops up that means they aren’t getting any money. In short, it’s very difficult, and often seemingly impossible, to get through by phone or to get emails answered.

There are many stories from throughout the state of individuals making hundreds of calls to employment security without being able to speak to a person. Many can’t get through to even be placed on hold; others might spend several hours on hold, only to be disconnected.

Employment Security Commissioner Suzi LeVine says the problem is the sheer volume of calls the agency is fielding, KOMO-TV reported. Nick Demerice, Employment Security Department spokesman, told the Spokesman-Review that the system was designed to handle hundreds of claims a week; now it receives as many as 25,000 calls per day. While ESD has hired 700 more agents, it can still handle only about 2,500 calls daily.

According to the Associated Press, as of last week more than $2.1 billion has been paid to people seeking unemployment benefits. More than 1.4 million claims have been filed since early March. AP reported LeVine said Thursday that since March 7, 810,538 people have filed for benefits, and more than 545,000 have been paid.

That leaves about 265,000 who have not yet received benefits, AP said. Of those, about 187,000 have filed an initial application but not a weekly claim, or they were previously rejected but haven’t re-applied since a federal package made them eligible. An additional 57,000 have issues with their application that ESD is looking into, and about 21,000 are not eligible.

We understand the calls for patience. “The money won’t run out and you won’t miss out,” LeVine said in an April 30 statement. “You will be paid all the benefits for which you are eligible.” That’s good, but it’s also cold comfort when one has no income and bills to pay.

Washington, of course, is not the only state struggling with unemployment benefits. Oregon has faced very similar problems, and has whittled down its backlog of 100,000 unprocessed claims to about 80,000, the Oregonian reported May 6.

The agency must do all it can to ensure those seeking help can talk to a person without undue delay.

The Employment Security Department is indeed facing a tough test. Thousands of Washingtonians are depending on it not to fail.