SEATTLE — A year and a half after a global pandemic and an explosion of fraud rocked the state’s Employment Security Department, an audit released Monday says there’s still room for improvement when it comes to customer service.
Washingtonians are facing shorter wait times for jobless benefit payments than they were earlier in the pandemic. But that’s more thanks to reduced demand, not changes made by the agency, concludes the 105-page report published by the state auditor’s office.
“The Employment Security Department followed the letter of the law in some areas of reform, but in others more work still has to be done,” State Auditor Pat McCarthy said in a statement Monday.
In a written response, Cami Feek, commissioner of the Employment Security Department, and David Schumacher, director of the Office of Financial Management, said they disagreed “with many of the conclusions documented in this report.”
Like many states, Washington struggled to pay unemployment benefits to workers during the COVID-19 pandemic closures, as demand skyrocketed. In March 2020, Washington saw the number of people claiming unemployment climb from 70,000 to 200,000. In May that year, more than 700,000 people got unemployment.
Washingtonians also had trouble getting anyone to answer questions about their claims. Then there were those fraudulently siphoning money from the state, like a former Nigerian official who eventually was sentenced to five years for a “litany of scams.”
In 2021, state lawmakers passed Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 5193 to improve the experience of people seeking unemployment benefits. For example, the law required the Employment Security Department to write clearer letters to claimants and set up dedicated phone lines for people with limited proficiency in English.
The auditor’s report found the department put some parts of the new law into place, but “the customer experience appears to have been minimally affected by those efforts.”
Auditors say the agency could do more to ensure the reforms have the intended results.
As a result of the law, the department trained hundreds of workers for a reserve pool, but auditors say it hasn’t measured whether the training is effective.
Auditors also said the agency “still lacks an emergency plan for how to better handle future surges in claims.”
While the state’s budget outlook for the next two years is largely positive, some economy watchers fear a recession or at least a downturn on the horizon. That could mean layoffs and more unemployment claims.
Auditors found wait times for payments didn’t improve until fall 2021, when the number of claims fell to almost pre-pandemic levels.
Other aspects of customer service could be improved, auditors said, like a virtual assistant on the department’s website.
In their response, Feek and Schumacher said the work the agency has done to improve customer service “is far more robust than the audit suggests.”
For instance, auditors reported the agency made no progress on a requirement to set up a dedicated phone line for claimants who don’t have access to a computer or don’t have computer skills.
The agency said in its response it had set up such a line, it just wasn’t publicly advertised. Rather, call center and WorkSource center workers individually give the number to people facing technology issues.
“Publishing the number broadly will result in the phone line used by callers not part of the target audience, making it difficult or impossible for those who really need it to reach us,” the agency said.