Gov. Jay Inslee has named Cami Feek to lead the state Employment Security Department, the pandemic- and fraud-battered agency that administers unemployment benefits.
Feek is familiar with the agency’s woes. The state government veteran had been appointed acting commissioner in February after former ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine left to take a job in the Biden administration.
Like unemployment agencies around the nation, ESD struggled mightily over the past year to manage the surge in pandemic-related unemployment claims.
Washington was among the first states to be targeted by criminals who siphoned off nearly $650 million in benefits before the state was able to stem the tide of fraudulent claims and recover $370 million.
Last month, a Nigerian national, Abidemi Rufai, was arrested and charged by federal prosecutors with stealing more than $350,000 in Washington unemployment benefits.
Rufai, who was arrested in New York when he tried to board a plane to Nigeria, had been an aide to the governor in the Nigerian state of Ogun. Through an attorney, he has denied all involvement in the fraud.
In addition to fraud, ESD also has been hammered by the public and by state lawmakers over poor communication and delays in paying legitimate claims to struggling Washingtonians.
Those wait times have improved, somewhat. As of this week, ESD reported an average of 9,500 claimants waiting three weeks or longer for payment, compared with more than 10,000 in May. People who call ESD are still waiting an average of 40 minutes on hold, according to a department spokesperson.
Feek, in a statement, said she is going into her new role “with my eyes wide open… ESD is a continuous learning organization, and I am committed to applying all we’ve learned in this crisis to increasing equitable access to our many services and improving the experience for our customers.”
Some critics had called for Inslee to fire LeVine, a major Democratic Party political fundraiser. But Inslee refused, and defended LeVine, whom he had appointed to the job in 2018.
Feek has a much lower public profile. Besides taking over as acting commissioner upon LeVine’s departure, she had served as acting commissioner in 2018 and in other top ESD roles, including deputy commissioner for the past three years.
She has worked in state government for more than 25 years, according to Inslee’s office, including at the state’s Department of Enterprise Services.
Inslee praised Feek, saying he’d first worked with her on the rollout of the state’s groundbreaking paid family and medical leave program.
“She is a dedicated public servant who knows how crucial work force development and retraining is to workers and to the economy,” Inslee said in a statement.
Seattle Times staff reporter Paul Roberts contributed to this report.