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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Shake up Employment Security Department

The Columbian
Published: January 3, 2021, 6:03am

2020 has been a hellish year for everyone. That’s certainly true for Washington’s Employment Security Department. But it’s even more true for Washingtonians whose jobs have been lost or cut back due to the pandemic and must look to the agency for jobless aid. Because nine months into the pandemic, there are still thousands who are having difficulty with the agency.

According to a Dec. 17 story by online news organization Crosscut, ESD reported that as of Dec. 5, 1.8 percent of people who filed for unemployment since March were still waiting for ESD to resolve their claims. As Crosscut points out, while 1.8 percent might seem like a small number, it translates to 27,000 people. In addition, the story says, the agency is taking 10 weeks on average to resolve complicated claims.

While an argument can be made for giving ESD the benefit of the doubt in the early weeks of the pandemic — the Seattle Times reported that it received 181,975 unemployment claims in the week ending March 28 — it’s much more difficult to understand why applicants are still experiencing problems after all these months.

Some issues, such as difficulty getting through on the phone, emails that go unanswered and conflicting responses to inquiries, arose early in the pandemic and still continue. Those who are self-employed have faced their own challenges. Then in November some 26,000 people were notified they might be forced to repay some of their benefits, the Spokesman-Review of Spokane reported. The notices of overpayment came from them being placed in the wrong program as the department tried to handle both the state’s regular unemployment benefits system and a separate federal program to cover people the state didn’t. One couple was told they could owe a combined $27,000.

Needless to say, panic and confusion ensued. A Dec. 26 editorial by the News Tribune of Tacoma properly scolded ESD: “We recognize that ESD was dealt a difficult hand in processing payments. What we don’t understand is why, months later, it started demanding repayment in such a clunky and callous manner; it used tactics that shouldn’t be tolerated in a private collection agency, much less state government.”

Then also in November, as the Seattle Times reported, “the auditor’s office took the extraordinary step of rebuking ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine for delays in supplying the auditor’s office with information about the fraud.”

The bottom line now is what are Washington’s elected officials going to do about the Employment Security Department? Gov. Jay Inslee has made clear he’s loath to dismiss LeVine, whom he appointed to the job. But someone must be held responsible for the agency’s continuing problems.

Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, told Crosscut, “It is a challenging time, no doubt, but 10 months later you can’t get it figured out? That shouldn’t be acceptable.” State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, told the News Tribune that she believes Inslee should replace LeVine.

Everyone agrees ESD has had an extremely challenging year. It faced an unprecedented flood of unemployment claims. It was bilked out of about $600 million by a sophisticated fraud operation, and has managed to recover about $350 million. But questions have been raised if the agency missed red flags that could have prevented the fraud, or at least alerted it to it much sooner.

So it’s increasingly difficult to argue with Braun and Rivers. The state Employment Security Department is due for a shake-up. The top might be a good place to start.