Suzi LeVine, the departing head of Washington’s Employment Security Department (ESD), reportedly will lead the federal sub-agency office that helps states manage unemployment benefits.
LeVine, whose departure from the ESD was announced late last week, will serve as interim assistant secretary of the Employment and Training Administration (ETA), which is part of the Labor Department, according to a report Friday by Bloomberg Law.
Neither the ETA nor LeVine would confirm the Bloomberg account, although LeVine indicated via text that her new role starts Monday.
The new job would put LeVine at the forefront of the Biden administration’s economic response to the pandemic, which has cost the United States nearly 10 million jobs since February.
But LeVine’s move from Olympia to Washington, D.C., also comes amid continued criticism of the ESD’s response to pandemic-related job losses and fraud, renewed scrutiny of its slow response to public records requests by media outlets, and heightened attention to the politics of presidential appointments. LeVine is a major player in the Democratic Party, and she and her husband, Eric LeVine, were big contributors to Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign.
That criticism may become an issue, given that the role as assistant secretary at ETA must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
As she did last week, LeVine on Friday declined to answer questions about her new role with the Biden administration or the Bloomberg report. “Per my previous notes, I’m still not at liberty to share what role I’ll be taking in the new administration,” LeVine said in a text.
LeVine’s post at the ETA is temporary, and it isn’t yet known whether the 51-year-old former tech executive and U.S. ambassador is in the running for a permanent role as assistant secretary at the ETA, according to Bloomberg. An ETA spokesperson did not respond to questions about the appointment.
Biden hasn’t nominated anyone for that post, which requires confirmation by the U.S. Senate, Bloomberg reported. Biden’s nominee for Labor secretary is Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, which the Senate reportedly will consider next week.
The ETA “administers federal government job training and worker dislocation programs, federal grants to states for public employment service programs, and unemployment insurance benefits,” according to the ETA website.
The ETA “is poised to wield immense authority in executing President Joe Biden’s mission to rapidly repair a labor market reeling from the virus-induced surge of layoffs and structural damage,” Bloomberg reported.
News that LeVine was leaving the ESD ignited a storm of criticism last week over problems at the ESD during her 2-1/2 year tenure. Notable among those was a fraud scheme last spring that siphoned off $600 million in unemployment funds, as well as chronic delays in benefit payments to legitimate claimants during the pandemic.
That criticism continued Friday. Her move to Washington, D.C., is “great news for all Washingtonians who paid the price for her inept leadership here at home,” said Caleb Heimlich, chair of the Washington State Republican Party in an emailed statement. “Unfortunately, it is horrible news for the country.”
Critics have also noted that LeVine, who worked at Microsoft and Expedia and served as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein for three years in the Obama administration, is a longtime player in Democratic politics.
The LeVines gave more than $400,000 to the Biden campaign and other Democratic causes in 2019 and 2020, according to federal campaign records.
In 2017, the LeVines were appointed as deputy national finance chairs for the Democratic National Committee, according to its website.
But Suzi LeVine’s allies say she revived a dysfunctional and demoralized state agency and used her considerable technical and management expertise to help modernize a critical organization that had been slow to upgrade its systems. LeVine has also worked extensively with her counterparts in other states and in September became chair-elect of the National Association of State Workforce Agencies (but will step down from that role Sunday).
Gov. Jay Inslee appointed LeVine as ESD commissioner in July 2018.
In her new role, LeVine will run an organization with a central role in federal labor policy. The ETA has just over 900 employees and had a budget of around $9 billion in 2020, or nearly three-quarters of the Labor Department’s overall appropriation, according to an agency budget brief.
Among the ETA’s functions are “providing high-quality job training, employment, labor market information, and income maintenance services primarily through state and local workforce development systems,” the ETA website says.
LeVine has been a proponent of new job training methods. After her ambassadorship ended, in 2017, she returned to the U.S. and began promoting the idea of a Swiss-style apprenticeship system as a way to help American students be better prepared for the job market.
Another key function of the ETA is approving employer requests for immigrant-worker visas.
But a big part of LeVine’s new job at the ETA will be overseeing the federal response to COVID-19’s impacts on the U.S. job market.
Under Biden’s new $1.9 trillion coronavirus proposal, which has yet to be approved by Congress, unemployed workers would receive $400 a week in federal benefits on top of their regular state unemployment benefits. That’s less than the $600 a week offered last spring under the first pandemic relief package, but more than the $300 weekly federal payments included in December’s relief package.
In a text last week, LeVine had said she was “humbled to serve my country as an economic first responder.”
Another key ETA role is advising states on how to implement unemployment programs and distribute federal relief.
Last spring, the ESD and its counterparts in other states had to wait weeks for specific instructions from the ETA before they could start paying federal benefits to jobless workers.
That dynamic has continued with December’s relief package. Although the legislation extended several of last spring’s pandemic relief programs, some of those benefits have been slow to roll out as states await federal guidance.
LeVine may face other challenges in her new role, including a Trump administration appointee in a key ETA job.
Amy Simon, a deputy assistant secretary for the ETA under the Trump administration, recently applied to become a civil servant and assume a role as one of the ETA’s two top career deputies, Bloomberg reported.
If Simon’s move is approved, it would be harder for the Biden administration to immediately replace Simon with its own candidate, and would leave LeVine to work with a Trump political appointee in implementing Biden administration policy.
Seattle Times political reporter Jim Brunner contributed to this report, which also includes information from The Seattle Times archive.