In the first months of the pandemic, the Washington state Employment Security Department (ESD) was heavily criticized for problems that left tens of thousands of jobless workers struggling to file claims, get benefits or even reach someone on the phone.
Since then, the agency has solved many of those problems, ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine said in an interview Friday. But the agency continues to face criticism for what LeVine described as “systemic challenges” that “we are working hard to overcome and where we still have a lot of room to improve.”
Delayed payments are still an issue. In October, just 52.6% of claims filed with ESD were paid within 21 days, according to the U.S. Labor Department. That’s a substantial improvement over June and July, but is still below the U.S. average for October (58.7%) and lags 33 other states, Labor Department data shows.
ESD’s own data shows that the time required to resolve delayed claims has grown from four weeks in early August to 9.7 weeks as of last week.
And the agency continues to face criticism for problems with its phone system and website. “Sometimes I’ll log on and get halfway through submitting my weekly claim and the website will just completely shut down,” said Meaghan Flowers, an unemployed preschool teacher in the Spokane area.
The latest criticism is particularly worrying in the wake of the new public health restrictions on restaurants and other businesses ordered by Gov. Jay Inslee on Nov. 15, said Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines. “There’s going to be a huge number of … people who are going to be impacted with layoffs,” said Keiser, chair of the Commerce and Labor Committee, which oversees ESD. “It should be not so hard [to reach ESD] anymore. We should make it easier on people.”
ESD was also criticized in October by the state Auditor’s Office for being slow to respond to requests for information about this spring’s massive unemployment fraud and other issues related to the pandemic.
LeVine acknowledged that ongoing problems with the agency’s phone and web systems and some staffing shortages mean some claimants still aren’t getting help fast enough.
But LeVine argued that the agency also has new challenges. As the pandemic has dragged on, the problems that delay claims have “gotten more complex and require more skill,” LeVine said. “There’s an assumption that we’re nine months into this and shouldn’t this all be fixed by now?”
LeVine outlined steps the agency has taken to correct the problems that remain.
The ESD has recently identified two issues that are preventing a “very small subset” from logging in or completing a claim, and is “working very aggressively to troubleshoot it … with our service providers,” LeVine said.
The agency has also doubled the number of incoming, or “trunk,” phone lines from 600 to 1,200, which has cut the number of times callers get an “all circuits are busy” message, LeVine said. She added that there are plans to add even more trunk lines.
The agency has also added and trained staff to handle higher call volumes; the system is currently averaging around 13,000 a day. The ESD now has “enough people who are trained enough that for 80% of the time, they can fix whatever it is that somebody called for,” LeVine said. The agency plans to add more staff, she said.
Thanks in part to those improvements, LeVine said, after Inslee’s latest restrictions kicked in, ESD was able to easily process a surge in new claims as well as 62,000 older claims that were reopened by workers who had been laid off again.
LeVine said that federal data on the timeliness of claims resolutions and payment was skewed by several factors. One is the rising number and complexity of issues that can delay a claim, LeVine said. For example, many claimants who had been getting emergency federal benefits were required by federal law to re-file last month for state benefits, which many failed to do on time.
Another factor: If a person filed an unemployment claim weeks or months after being laid off but also filed retroactive claims for the weeks since the layoffs, both federal and state claims timeliness data will backdate that claim to the earliest claimed week.
LeVine, who has been a lightening rod for criticism about her agency’s responsiveness over the last nine months, tempered her comments about the ESD’s improvements: “It’s hard to acknowledge or recognize the progress that’s been made, given the fact that there are people who are still in deep need.”
Some ESD critics said they welcomed the agency’s efforts at improvement. But they also want to see more focus on cutting waiting times — especially for claims with complicated problems and backdated claims.
Data on timeliness may be skewed, says Sage Wilson, a spokesperson for the advocacy group Working Washington. But those numbers “do tell the story that we’re also hearing from workers still, which is that [ESD] can be really slow, really inconsistent, and really hard to reach.”
Although ESD may have identified reasons that some claims take longer to resolve, Wilson said, “from an unemployed worker’s point of view, the question is … how long is it going to take until I get some money?”