It wasn’t a lot of money, but business owner Steve Allington wanted his $144 refund check from the state Employment Security Department. Getting it took nearly a year.
OLYMPIA — Last November, Steve Allington filed to get a $144 refund check from the state Employment Security Department.
The department owed Allington the money — $144.59, to be exact — for worker unemployment insurance (UI) that he paid as owner of a Renton-based business, Consortium of Papers.
After sending in his request, Allington, 60, called back about 10 times over the ensuing months — keeping a handwritten log of his efforts — but still no refund came.
It may not have been a big brick of cash, but that $144 belonged to him — and Allington wanted it.
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“As a matter of principle,” he said, “I just wasn’t going to let go until I got it.”
So he began calling, first in late November, to check in. As the calendar rolled into 2015, he continued to call: in January and February, then in April and May, then in July and September and October.
Employees gave varying explanations for the delay, according to Allington: The request hadn’t yet been received, then it hadn’t been indexed properly, then that it would be processed immediately, and later, that it was part of a large backlog of refunds.
The problem appeared to include inefficient bureaucracy, clerical errors and a computer program meant to speed up the department’s processing of refunds — but which hasn’t worked since being installed in 2014.
Janelle Guthrie, spokeswoman for the department, said the issues Allington encountered were “ridiculous” and that the department is working to make sure such problems don’t happen again.
”His experience is hopefully an anomaly,” Guthrie said. “It’s the first time I’ve heard of something like that.”
Out of the 160,000 businesses paying state unemployment-insurance taxes, the department — which also handles unemployment claims and job-training programs — currently has about 3,900 requests for refunds, according to Guthrie.
Allington was in line for a refund because his business, which sells glossy paper to magazines and other publications, has restructured. Without having employees on staff, he no longer has to pay unemployment insurance.
Refund requests received by the department are scanned by one division of workers who receive a variety of documents, according to Guthrie. Those workers forward refund requests to a 15-person unit responsible for refunds and other tasks.
That unit must then individually research each request and double-check that the accounting is accurate, according to Brenda Westfall, director of the department’s UI Tax and Wage Administration. Before sending out a refund, workers must also determine that the company doesn’t owe the department money.
As a safeguard, all refunds require at least one additional employee to approve the request beyond the one who researched it, according to Westfall.
Once verified, it usually takes about 72 hours for the department to issue a refund, according to Guthrie. She said there are plans to “aggressively address” the refund backlog in coming months.
Since March 2014, Westfall said, the unit has completed about 720 refunds.
The department acquired a computer program intended to reduce the manual workload and speed up the process. But despite being installed a year and a half ago, the new program still can’t be used because “there is some issue with the way the data converted,” according to Westfall.
Westfall said she hopes to have the program operational by the end of the year.
So what happened with Allington’s refund?
Twice, the request was incorrectly scanned in, according to Guthrie, including the first time, when he filed it along with another document.
“The business-change form and the refund request should have been scanned in separately so each process could be worked by the separate units responsible — but they were not,” Guthrie wrote in an email.
When a worker tried to fix the mistake, it was incorrectly scanned a second time, Guthrie said. The department is working to make sure mistakes like that don’t happen again, she said.
The department refiled Allington’s request on July 8, eight months after he began his journey. That day, according to Allington’s log, was also one of the days he called the department.
The department started the refund review Sept. 4 — another day Allington said he called.
After reviewing Allington’s case, “This is clearly an example of a series of mistakes that we ultimately corrected,” wrote Guthrie. “We are always working to improve our systems, and this case is no different.”
“We are deeply sorry this employer had to go through this level of trouble to obtain his refund,” she added.
On Oct. 19, the department issued Allington’s refund.
Describing the ordeal, Allington said it was about “the typical consumer who gets frustrated over what should be a very simple thing.”
And if he owed money to the department, Allington suspects he would have seen quicker action.
“If the shoe had been on the other foot,” he said, “you can be certain that I would have been hearing from a collection agency about, ‘Where’s my $144?’ ”