The expected extension of federal pandemic unemployment assistance is good news for the nearly 459,000 Washington workers receiving unemployment benefits.
Upon its final approval, the state Employment Security Department must move to quickly and accurately distribute the payments, thus proving it has learned from its recent past.
Included in the U.S. Congress’ year-end omnibus spending bill are continuing pandemic unemployment assistance for gig workers, independent contractors and others usually ineligible for unemployment benefits, and added benefit payments to state unemployment checks. The latter is reduced in this second round from $600 to $300 per week.
Despite President Donald Trump’s dissatisfaction with other provisions in the $1.4 trillion spending package, and the chance his theatrics will cause delays, there is broad congressional support for the enhanced unemployment benefits, which will bring needed, if temporary, relief to hundreds of thousands of out-of-work Washingtonians.
But the news comes on the heels of a state audit report that flagged inadequate internal protections at ESD and identified lingering questions surrounding last spring’s fraud that siphoned an estimated $600 million in federal and state money from the department. So far, the state has recovered about $357 million of the stolen funds, ESD officials say.
The unemployment agency insists that its troubles are behind it — that it has already adopted all the recommendations offered in the audit — the first of five being conducted by the State Auditor’s Office.
“We so appreciate the feedback this audit provides and are proud that all of their recommendations are actions we’ve already taken,” Commissioner Suzi LeVine wrote in a statement responding to the report.
ESD has paid out more than $13 billion in state and federal unemployment benefits since March 8. In that time, only about 70% of claims have been approved within a week, according to departmental statistics. It’s taking an average of three weeks for the department to forward appeals to the Office of Administrative Hearings. And although wait times have improved from the worst days of the economic downturn, the department continues to advise people not to call the unemployment claims center unless it is “absolutely necessary.”
The theft and delays have led some to call for LeVine’s replacement. But Gov. Jay Inslee seems bent on forgiving and forgetting the agency’s fumbles, saying in a recent meeting with editorial board members that he feels the beleaguered department is on an “arc of improvement.” In a follow-up, a spokeswoman stressed that the governor will “continue to demand accountability and improved performance from ESD, as he does for all state agencies.”
The public needs more than pat assurances. It needs results.