The Legislature expedited important unemployment insurance changes that will bring much-needed relief to the state’s employers and lowest-wage workers. Taking effect last week, they are a responsible answer to the ongoing pandemic.
But state lawmakers have more to do to hold the Employment Security Department and the governor accountable for last year’s delays and missteps. Among them were efforts to obfuscate a state Auditor’s probe and journalist’s questions.
Senate Bill 5061 passed the House and Senate with overwhelming, bipartisan support and was signed by Gov. Jay Inslee last Monday. It increases unemployment benefit payments for unemployed workers who had been making between $21,000 and $27,800 per year, putting money in the pockets of Washingtonians who need it.
The new law prevents employers’ unemployment insurance tax burdens from skyrocketing as a result of last year’s layoffs. That means employers’ 2021 UI tax bill will increase by an average of around $10 per employee, said Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, the bill’s sponsor and chair of the Senate Labor, Commerce & Tribal Affairs committee. The actual tax will vary between employers but will be a whole lot better than the hundreds, if not thousands of dollars more per-capita increase employers had been projected to bear.
Keiser agrees the work is far from over, including further targeted relief for small businesses that have suffered disproportionately from pandemic-related public health measures. Such a lifeline will help keep some local restaurants, retailers and other businesses solvent, and more Washingtonians employed.
But lawmakers should look back as well as forward. The public deserves a full examination of the beleaguered department’s actions under former ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine, who reported to Gov. Inslee before leaving last month. Keiser said she intends to call ESD and the State Auditor’s Office to brief committee members and answer questions.
The thorough accounting is necessary to answer lingering questions about the department’s management and recent operations, including whether more should have been done to prevent or respond to last spring’s fraud or to get payments to unemployed Washingtonians.
The Legislature has a duty to provide a check on the state’s executive branch, especially considering Democrats control both houses and governor’s mansion. And particularly so, considering LeVine’s role as a highly successful fundraiser for Democratic politicians.
The ruling party must ensure Washington public interest is served before party loyalty and push hard for answers to tough questions and accountability where it’s due.
ESD officials should be held to account for reported delays in providing documents to state auditors and for confoundingly belated responses to public requests for public information. As Seattle Times reporter Jim Brunner recently wrote, the department took 219 days to fulfill a simple public records request for the then-commissioner’s calendar — a months-long ordeal he called “the most comically lousy Public Records Act response” he’d ever seen from a state agency.
When the Auditor’s Office complained about its access, the governor’s office intervened. But no such luck for Brunner and other members of the public, who describe unconscionably behavior for a public agency. That conduct — flouting of open government laws — rests with the governor too.
What the Auditor’s Office and Brunner described is unconscionable for a public agency, and that conduct is on the governor too.
The public deserves an explanation for these deficiencies and the recent hack involving the Auditor’s Office that exposed the personal information of more than a million unemployment claimants.
Certainly, the ESD was overwhelmed by historic unemployment claims and new federal benefits at the start of the pandemic. Lawmakers are considering another bill that seeks to better prepare the department for future onslaughts. SB 5193, sponsored by Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, would require the ESD to create an annual training program for a pool of reserve unemployment insurance claim adjudicators so the department can scale-up operations quickly in mass unemployment events. The bill was amended to also direct ESD to ensure public communications are clear and understandable, and to work with an advisory committee on other system improvements. It would require the department to report its progress quarterly to a special legislative work group until Dec. 1, 2022.
Such ongoing accountability is clearly needed to restore public trust in this vital state department.
Lawmakers must hold Employment Security Department leaders accountable and ensure past mistakes are truly in the past.