For an agency known as the go-to source for data on Washington’s jobs market, the state Employment Security Department (ESD) has been notably slow lately in sharing certain numbers on the pandemic unemployment crisis.
During a press conference Thursday, ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine again declined to give an estimate for the number of bogus fraudulent claims filed in this spring’s massive unemployment fraud scheme.
The ESD has pegged those fraud losses at between $550 million and $650 million, but has repeatedly declined to disclose the basis for that estimate.
“We still don’t know an exact number, and frankly we may never know an exact number,” LeVine said Thursday.
Her comments came as the agency released its latest data on new jobless claims, which, for the week ending July 18, were 29,438, a 27.3% drop from the prior week. Nationally, initial claims rose by 8.3% to 1.4 million, the U.S. Labor Department reported.
Critics say the lack of an estimate on the number of fraudulent claims makes it difficult for anyone outside the agency to gauge the accuracy of ESD’s loss estimates.
“It’s hard to understand how they can be giving a dollar figure without a claims number,” said Sage Wilson, spokesperson with the labor group Working Washington.
Other states have been more forthcoming with fraud data.
In announcing a fraud scheme recently uncovered in Maryland, for example, Gov. Larry Hogan said last week that fraudsters had filed 47,500 false claims, totaling more than $501 million in benefits from the state system.
ESD, by contrast, has said only that bogus claims numbered in the “tens of thousands.”
Fraud isn’t the only area where ESD has been slow to share numbers.
Also missing is an estimate of the total number of workers in Washington who have filed legitimate claims for jobless benefits but aren’t currently being paid.
Instead, ESD’s recent reports have focused on a subcategory of claimants —those who filed for benefits but never received any because their claims were under review. The number of people in that group has fallen from around 81,000 in mid-June to just over 20,000 this week, ESD said.
But critics say ESD isn’t mentioning other unpaid claimants — among them, people who had been receiving benefits but had those payments suspended, and people whose claims had been denied by the agency but have been unable to appeal those denials.
“They’re not counting those people,” said John Tirpak, director of the Washington Unemployment Law Project, who estimates those uncounted claimants could number in the tens of thousands.
LeVine said ESD planned to release data on that broader group when the agency had a better estimate. “I want to be able to be more precise,” LeVine said. “I know that people will hang on the various numbers that we present, and I want to be accurate when I present that.”
Some organizations that advocate for the unemployed worry that ESD isn’t sharing that data because it could be fairly large.
“They have the data — they’re just not being forthcoming with it,” said Justin Abbasi, a Seattle attorney whose firm is representing several workers with suspended benefits. Abbasi said he has interviewed former ESD employees “who’ve told me it takes them just minutes to get all that kind of information.”
Complicating the issue, some lawsuits filed recently against ESD say the agency’s suspension of payments may have violated state and federal law.
The lack of data comes amid concerns that surging virus cases and other uncertainties may already be slowing the pace of the state’s nascent economic recovery.
On Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced new restrictions on economic activity. Employers are also grappling with political uncertainties over federal stimulus programs that have spurred a lot of state economic activity.
Many of the Paycheck Protection loans that employers used to retain employees have now been exhausted. As of July 7, those loans accounted for 74% of small-business payroll in Washington since the loans began going out in April, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Some employers also fear a drop in consumer spending if Congress doesn’t quickly extend or replace the extra $600 weekly unemployment benefit that the federal government authorized in March.
That benefit alone has accounted for more than $4 billion of the roughly $8.1 billion the state has paid out in unemployment benefits since the start of the crisis; it accounted for more than $900 million in July, LeVine said Thursday. The loss of that benefit would “significantly decrease incomes to hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians.”
Such concerns could help explain why the surge in hiring and re-hiring that the state saw in May and June appears to be tapering off as many employers question whether to keep ramping up operations or scale back.
Employers “are being very cautious, rightly so,” said Thomas Gilbert, associate professor of finance at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.
More than 250,000 of the jobs the state lost at the height of the pandemic layoffs in March and April haven’t come back — evidence, Gilbert said, that the state faces a “long slog to get back to ‘full’ employment.”