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Shawn Vestal: Unemployment chief’s terrible, horrible, very bad year somehow lands her a federal appointment

Laid-off workers in the state of Washington filed 29,651 new jobless claims Dec. 27-Jan. 2, a 54.5% increase compared to the prior week.  (Associated Press)
Laid-off workers in the state of Washington filed 29,651 new jobless claims Dec. 27-Jan. 2, a 54.5% increase compared to the prior week. (Associated Press)

Anyone who has found themselves waiting – and waiting, and waiting, and waiting – for unemployment benefits might be puzzled to learn that the woman in charge of them in Washington has been scooped up for a job in the Biden administration.

Suzi LeVine’s record as commissioner of the Employment Security Department would not have made you bet on a call-up to the big leagues.

Yes, her agency was handed a possibly impossible task at the front end of the pandemic. But nine months on, it’s hard to ignore the fact that in several crucial areas – from the molasses-like payment of benefits to failures of public accountability – Levine has stood at the helm of a disastrous year.

Yet she is now off to the other Washington, nominated to oversee billions of dollars in programs as interim assistant secretary of the Employment and Training Administration. Three Washington House members – Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Dan Newhouse and Jaime Herrara Beutler – have urged President Biden to reconsider, citing her “dismal track record” and “gross mismanagement of state taxpayer dollars,” and it’s hard to argue with their characterization.

There was, recall, the coordinated fraud ring out of Nigeria discovered preying upon the agency in the spring – called “Scattered Canary” by investigators. It cost the state more than $650 million and left unknown numbers of jobless Washingtonians paying the price in subsequent delays, as the agency struggled to sort out legitimate claims from fraudulent ones.

That was the headline disaster, but far from the only one. At a time of great personal crisis, thousands of Washingtonians who lose their paychecks to the pandemic find themselves waiting for weeks and weeks for benefits to arrive. For many of those people, these delays are disasters.

In December, according to U.S. Department of Labor, just 56% of claims filed were paid within 21 days. This is an improvement over the dismal summer – when that “first-time payment rate” was 38% – and yet it lags far behind the national average of 74%.

Almost a third of claims were unpaid after 70 days.

Jobless workers whose claims have been reevaluated – or who are seeking backdated benefits or who have particularly complicated cases in a system riddled with complications – can wait weeks with no word about their status. When word arrives, it can be indecipherable for all but the most expert in the coded argot of the benefits system.

Getting someone on the phone to answer a question is like winning the lottery; a recent update about upcoming COVID-19 relief on the agency website came with this warning: “Please do not call our unemployment claims center with questions as call volume remains high.”

New motto: Don’t call us, we’ll – actually, just don’t call us.

The state has been sued over allegations that it improperly denied benefits to thousands of people, and the number of those appealing a denial of benefits piled up to more than 20,000 at one point.

A nonprofit group that advocates for workers, Working Washington, issued a report in October, blasting the ESD for systemic, built-in delays that left thousands of the poorest people in the state in a double bind – without benefits or any meaningful explanation for what’s happening.

“Over six months into the crisis, ESD claims they’ve corrected course and cleared their backlog of applicants, releasing weekly progress reports that appear to prove they’ve reined in delays,” Working Washington wrote in its report. “But the reality is that many workers who applied as early as March still haven’t received a single payment, or even a meaningful response from ESD.”

I’ve had a personal window on this issue for months now: My wife, who lost her job for pandemic-related reasons, received benefits for months before being asked to reconfirm her identity – leading to an interruption in benefits that has lasted for 10 weeks, so far. That’s just the latest in a 10-month experience with ESD that would have tested the patience of Sisyphus, on top of the challenge of trying to find work.

It’s been an unending source of frustration and discouragement – and we’re lucky! We can still buy groceries and keep the roof over our head. So many others left waiting by the ESD are not so fortunate.

Working Washington surveyed 1,000 claimants about their experiences, and found that almost half had less than $100 in the bank at the time and 42% had been unable to afford groceries or basic household items.

Imagine waiting 10 weeks for your benefits with less than $100 in the bank and no realistic idea of when help might arrive.

The ESD did not respond to messages seeking an interview this week. In a December news conference, LeVine said the agency had fixed many problems and pointed to improvements in the payment of benefits.

She said, according to news accounts, that the Department of Labor numbers reflect the fact that many claims are complicated by requirements of federal emergency benefits or by complications involving retroactive benefits – though of course this would be true for other states as well.

“It’s hard to acknowledge or recognize the progress that’s been made, given the fact that there are people who are still in deep need,” she said.

The massive fraud scheme was particularly costly and destructive, in that it led to a slowdown and interruption in benefits for many legitimate recipients – people who lost their jobs and needed the money urgently.

Our state was one of six targeted by scammers, and it suffered the biggest losses. It came at a time when agency officials found themselves deluged with a unprecedented number of claims. ESD typically deals with 5,000 to 7,000 new claims a week; in the first week of March it received more than 180,000.

It was an incredibly difficult task, with pressure on all sides, and criminals exploited it. The imperative to deliver benefits quickly conflicted with the need to process claims rigorously. But the continued problems throughout the year have seemed less and less explicable.

On top of that, LeVine’s agency has turned up its nose at the accountability it owes the public. In October, State Auditor Pat McCarthy took the extraordinary step of complaining that LeVine had placed “significant constraints” on auditors looking into several aspects of ESD’s performance, and threatened to report that “management interference” was preventing the completion of audits.

And when Jim Brunner of the Seattle Times filed a public records request for LeVine’s calendar in June, he was rebuffed and stonewalled for months. This was an ordinary request, easy to fulfill – “the kind of thing state agencies typically turn around within days,” as Brunner wrote.

He finally received the information Friday, 219 days after his request, and hasn’t yet reported on what it contained.

It was a miserable addition to a resume that you wouldn’t think would carry someone to a White House appointment.

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