Editor’s note: Today’s guest editorial originally appeared in The Seattle Times.
This Labor Day is a somber one for out-of-work Washingtonians. And it’s the perfect day to demand better from a state Employment Security Department that continues to struggle under the weight of record unemployment claims.
As department officials recently confirmed, more than 20,000 people who have been denied unemployment benefits are still waiting for ESD to take a second look or forward their appeal to the Office of Administrative Hearings. If recent history is any guide, most of them will ultimately qualify for unemployment benefits. According to the department’s data, 68% of appeals requests resolved since March have been redetermined — meaning the application was approved by ESD after receiving new information.
Most applications for unemployment benefits are approved and paid relatively swiftly, but advocates and journalists say they’ve been requesting details about the appeals backlog for months only to be told the department did not have enough confidence in the data’s accuracy to make it public. That is an unacceptable delay.
In normal times, the department aims to forward appeals to the Office of Administrative Hearings within five days. But the average case transfer time was 42 days in August and 34 days in July. A department spokesman says the ESD has enacted a plan to significantly decrease that lag time. In fact, the department forwarded more than twice as many appeals to OAH last month as it did just two months earlier — forwarding 5,402 claims in August, compared with 2,335 cases in June.
But as Anne Paxton, attorney and policy director for the Unemployment Law Project, said in an interview: “This is an emergency. This is a crisis. People are facing destitution.”
This is only the latest in a series of logjams that have plagued the ESD and delayed benefit payments over five months of double-digit unemployment. Officials should make sure it is the last.
“The story throughout has been about scale,” ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine said in an interview last Thursday, comparing the department’s unprecedented workload to “the bump in the python” digesting a heavy meal.
The first “bump” appeared in March, when claims rose precipitously. In mid-April, the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act grafted a pandemic unemployment benefit on to the existing unemployment insurance benefit. In May, fraudsters attacked the Washington system, siphoning hundreds of millions of dollars in unemployment benefits through fraudulent claims.
The problems have persisted as ESD has continued to receive record numbers of applications, transitioned its own workers to telework, boosted telecommunications infrastructure and trained about 1,200 new employees hired to supplement the pre-pandemic workforce of 1,700, LeVine said.
Certainly, the department’s road has not been easy. But that is cold comfort to out-of-work Washingtonians waiting for a lifeline.
This crisis is far from over: The week of Aug. 23-29, 18,172 workers filed new claims for unemployment. That’s down slightly from the previous week, but nearly four times the new claims applications received during the same week a year ago.
Moving forward, LeVine must be more transparent about her department’s challenges and limitations, and more assertive about demanding the resources she needs to meet this extraordinary demand.