Suzi LeVine, commissioner of Washington state’s Employment Security Department (ESD), is leaving the embattled agency for a job in the Biden administration, the agency announced Friday. Her last day will be Feb. 1.
ESD Deputy Commissioner Cami Feek will serve as interim commissioner until Gov. Jay Inslee appoints a permanent replacement.
The agency provided no details about LeVine’s new role. LeVine said in a text message Friday that she couldn’t comment on the new job until Feb. 1, but added, somewhat cryptically, that she was “humbled to serve my country as an economic first responder.”
LeVine’s critics responded to Friday’s announcement by highlighting problems at the ESD during her 2-1/2 year tenure — notably a fraud scheme that siphoned off $600 million in unemployment funds as well as chronic delays in benefit payments to legitimate claimants during the pandemic.
They also noted that LeVine, a 51-year-old former Microsoft and Expedia executive and U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein for three years in the Obama administration, is a longtime player in Democratic politics. She and her husband, Eric LeVine, gave more than $400,000 to the Biden campaign and other Democratic causes in 2019 and 2020, according to federal campaign records.
Inslee appointed LeVine as ESD commissioner in July 2018.
Allies say she revived a dysfunctional and demoralized state agency. State Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, said that LeVine, who graduated from Brown University with an engineering degree, used her considerable technical and management expertise to help modernize an agency that had been slow to upgrade its systems.
She is also credited with launching Washington’s paid family and medical leave program, which covered around 100,000 people last year, despite a rollout hampered by higher-than-expected demand.
“She took an agency that was in the ditch … and I think she did an extraordinary job of turning that ship,” Carlyle said. “And then, [she] ran into the largest global pandemic in world history.”
Despite that crisis, allies say, the ESD under LeVine has delivered $13.5 billion in state and federal benefits to more than a million Washingtonians who lost their jobs during the pandemic. They also note that nearly every other state has been hit with unemployment fraud, and in some cases, have seen much larger losses.
And despite steady calls for her ouster following the fraud and other ESD problems, LeVine maintained the support of Inslee. LeVine “led the Employment Security Department through an extremely challenging time and I never doubted that she had the best interests of working Washingtonians at the heart of all her endeavors,” Inslee said in a statement Friday.
But critics said LeVine also bore responsibility for the agency’s mistakes and shortcomings during the crisis. That includes months-long delays in some benefit payments, poor communication with many claimants, and security lapses that contributed to the fraud.
Last September, for example, LeVine disclosed that a software flaw that contributed to the fraud losses was first detected in 2019, but not fixed until much of the fraud had occurred. That problem was highlighted in December in the first of five state audits being conducted on the fraud and other problems during the pandemic. State Auditor Pat McCarthy also rebuked LeVine for hindering her office’s investigation.
Even some Democrats complained about the ESD’s chronic slowness in releasing data about the fraud, claims problems or other issues. “I still don’t have [all] the numbers I need,” said state Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, chair of the committee with ESD oversight. “So frustration reigns … over those kinds of things.”
State Republicans also reprised what has become a common refrain about LeVine: that she got her job at ESD and remained there even as problems emerged largely due to her political connections.
“Not only did she inexplicably keep her job, now she’s being promoted to a job in the Biden-Harris administration,” said state Republican Party chair Caleb Heimlich in a statement Friday. “Talk about failing upwards.”
Allies said the criticism over LeVine’s political connections was a red herring that ignored the severity and novelty of the crisis that ESD faced in the pandemic. “For some reason, her being a former ambassador and contributor was a big deal,” Keiser said. But given the volume of claims ESD was trying to process, she added, “I honestly don’t think anyone could have done any better.”
But Keiser said political opposition to LeVine had been growing and that, with the new legislative session starting, “I was afraid that she would be subject to attack on the Senate floor from colleagues across the aisle.” That prospect was confirmed by state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, who said news of LeVine’s exit came just as she and other Republicans were preparing to call for the commissioner’s ouster during the legislative session.
Politics aside, LeVine’s departure comes at a tumultuous time for the ESD and the more than 320,000 Washingtonians who are now drawing unemployment benefits.
The agency is in the midst of a complicated reboot of several emergency federal benefit programs, each of which is constrained by tight guidelines. Its trust fund is largely depleted after paying out so many jobless claims — yet it also faces backlash from employers opposed to a tax increase to refill that trust fund.
And although the ESD has improved some operations by adding staff and streamlining its claims processing systems, it is still beset by complaints over delayed payments, hard-to-reach customer service staff, and communications that are confusing or just plain wrong.
In recent weeks, for example, some Washingtonians said they’re being told by the ESD they owe federal income tax on benefits that were actually paid to criminals using their identities during last spring’s massive unemployment fraud.
Given those challenges, some observers say LeVine’s successor should be someone not only with good managerial and technical skills, but also specific experience with unemployment systems.
The ideal candidate “is somebody who has had some experience with the agency,” said Joe Kendo, a lobbyist with the Washington State Labor Council who has worked closely with the agency. “I do not think this is the time or the situation [for] somebody with a lot of general managerial experience but [no] hands-on background with unemployment insurance.”
Seattle Times political reporter Jim Brunner contributed to this report, which also contains information from the Seattle Times archive.