Other Views: Thousands on the Hook to Repay Jobless Benefits. State, Fix Your Mess


Washington’s Employment Security Department is, without question, the most overwhelmed and underperforming arm of government during a nine-month pandemic shutdown with no clear end in sight.

For thousands of jobless or formerly jobless people who’ve tried and failed to untangle unemployment benefit snafus with ESD, other choice words also come to mind:

Inaccessible. Insensitive. Overly aggressive. Error-prone. Borderline incompetent.

Just ask Connie Yildirim of Tacoma. Her holiday season has been hijacked by exhausting, anxiety-filled dealings with ESD. It started with a bombshell notice in early November saying she owed thousands of dollars in overpayments from when she was out of work early last summer.

Countless phone calls later, Yildirim is still in limbo. One week before Christmas, after thinking she may have finally cleared her record, a new message flashed on her online ESD account: She owed $5,402, unless she verified her identity, which she’d already done at least once.

Only at this point the notice wasn’t a surprise; it was par for the course.

“You have to keep dealing with them over and over,” Yildirim, 53, told us last week. “It’s like a bad nightmare you think you solved one day and it keeps coming back.”

Yildirim’s ordeal isn’t unique, but her response is instructive for anyone trapped in the ESD overpayment spin cycle that emerged this fall.

Don’t give up. Don’t be daunted by short response times or missed appeal deadlines. Seek help from elected officials, nonprofit attorneys and others who can fight on your behalf. And by no means assume the state has accurately calculated the amount of money it says you owe.

There’s a lesson here for public officials, too: Hire and properly train more ESD customer service staff, fix glaring communication problems and demand top-to-bottom accountability.

Gov. Jay Inslee, who appointed ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine, has a key oversight role. To a lesser degree, so does the Legislature, which will have to approve the department’s budget in a few months. And the state Auditor’s Office, which recently completed its first in a series of five ESD audits, should conduct an unflinching review of repayment concerns raised by claimants. We’re glad that Auditor Pat McCarthy says she will do that.

Too much is at stake to make excuses and allow ESD’s poor performance record to persist, especially as the state prepares for a new round of $300 weekly supplemental unemployment benefits approved by Congress this week.

It will be scandalous if, months from now, the ESD again contacts thousands of struggling Washingtonians and tells them: You know that long-spent cash assistance we gave you? We want it back.

On top of the pandemic-fueled economic crisis, Washington faces a crisis of confidence in the jobless safety net.

“If something were to happen, God forbid, and I would need unemployment again, I don’t know if I trust them enough to apply for it,” Yildirim said.

To be clear, ESD had an unenviable task last spring: to serve the largest crush of jobless people since the Great Depression, and to implement a complicated web of federal emergency benefits, virtually overnight.

The department has delivered more than $7.5 billion in unemployment insurance benefits to nearly one million people this year. One huge setback: a tsunami of fraudulent claims, estimated at $600 million. This caused ESD to tighten identity-verification procedures; delays became common and claimants’ frustrations mounted.

We recognize that ESD was dealt a difficult hand in processing payments. What we don’t understand is why, months later, it started demanding repayments in such a clunky and callous manner; it used tactics that shouldn’t be tolerated in a private collection agency, much less state government.

On Nov. 1, around 26,000 people received surprise notices to provide more information. For some, it was because they didn’t qualify for federal benefits and might need to switch to the state program. For others, it was to verify their identity.

Yildirim promptly acted on her notice, and she’s spent the better part of two months trying to sort out the ensuing confusion. Wisely, she sought help from her congressman, state senator and the nonprofit Unemployment Law Project.

And still the nightmare drags on. She’s endured unanswered calls, disconnected lines, conflicting advice of what forms to complete and wildly varying notices of how much she allegedly owes.

Employed since late July in a mortgage broker’s office, she’s had to take two days off trying to clear her record.

Believe it or not, Yildirim is one of the lucky ones. Half of the folks who got notices — around 13,000 — didn’t follow up. The state gave just five days to respond, an outrageous deadline that’s since been lifted. And some people didn’t know to check their ESD accounts — say, because they got a job, haven’t received benefits in months and assumed their file was closed.

No response or appeal resulted in a presumptive denial of benefits, which led to overpayment notices. Even worse, some people received payment plan letters; an ESD spokesman said it’s unclear how many.

Missed payments could result in interest charges, garnished wages and bank accounts, and liens on property, the letter says. The first payment is due in December.

“Could you pick a worse time than right before Christmas?” said state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center. She told us she’s received panicked calls from constituents who feel powerless to defend themselves against state government.

“It’s not like they were bilking the system or have a Nigerian email address,” she said. “These are real people who were paid the benefit they deserved.”

Rivers says accountability rests squarely on LeVine, and that Inslee should replace the ESD commissioner. Rivers may be right; the remaining state audits will tell us a lot.

Meanwhile, the governor acknowledges Washingtonians’ frustration but pins the blame on the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment systems in every state are under enormous strain, Inslee said, and states are bound by federal law to recover any improperly issued federal jobless benefits.

In an interview with our Editorial Board, Inslee conceded this much: “I think we can improve communication over the repayments. This is why we need to build capacity so that a person can get somebody on the phone to try to straighten these things out.”

That’s a fine place to start. But his Employment Security Department has much work ahead. It must own this crisis in public confidence, make responsiveness a top priority and not prolong financial nightmares for Washingtonians who can least afford them.