Nearly a year after Washington suffered its first major cuts in the epidemic, the state unemployment system is still strained by the crisis, lawmakers and labor advocates say.
Although the flood of jobless claims receded last spring, thousands of Washingtonians are either waiting for payment from the State Department of Loyalty Security (ESD) or appeals, which the agency has rejected.
The lawsuit can still be complicated, slow, and easy to stop, many plaintiffs say. Those who have questions often struggle to contact the agency. Its website և computer notifications can be infamously confusing և even inaccurate.
“It’s an incapacity,” said Kevin Stonstad, 55, a Renton resident who is one of the many wrongdoers in Washington who has been wrongly told that he owes federal taxes on unemployment benefits from a $ 600 million fraud scheme last spring. The criminals were paid.
“I’ve never seen a bureaucracy so completely unaware of the people it’s supposed to serve,” adds Dennis Friskia, an unemployed Kent resident who has been without benefits since the ESD cut him off in December. appeared in a disappointing circle. bad communication, trying to verify his identity to the agency. “I’m angry about that.”
Such frustrations contribute to legislative proposals both to address the existing problems and to strengthen the unemployment system for the next crisis. Washington is a “literally failed worker” during the epidemic, says state spokeswoman Liz Berry, D.C. Seattle, one of dozens of lawmakers who are pushing for a bipartisan effort to improve the state unemployment system. “So what can we do now to fix it for the future?”
But fixing these problems will not be easy or fast. Many system failures during the system were most likely inevitable, given the historical scale of job losses. In the first three months of the crisis, Washington filed twice as many unemployment claims as they had in the nearly two years of the Great Depression, and to date they are now claiming twice as many as they did a year before the epidemic.
Many plaintiffs also stopped applying for emergency federal unemployment benefits, which had its own rules of jurisdiction. And after last spring’s fraud scandal, many legal plaintiffs found themselves in the agency’s scam.
Still, lawmakers say these challenges are exacerbated by the structural problems of the state unemployment system, which are the focus of a number of bills, most notably the House of Representatives accompanying Senate Bill 5193, HB 1487.
The main priority is to increase the number of so-called judges who have been trained to deal with issues of jurisdiction ելի disputed unemployment claims. “Because the ESD did not have enough judges during last spring’s wave of demands, even minor issues revolved around a huge number of ‘queues,'” said state Sen. Karen Kaiser, chairman of the DSD-designated ESD-oversight committee. Co-sponsor of 0 past SB 5193. The House may vote in early March.
Even now, a limited number of judges can influence plaintiffs such as Tim Orkhard, a 54-year-old maintenance worker from Spokane, who says he has been waiting about 13 weeks for benefits to be paid or “even for my unemployment decision.” »
SB 5193 would create a reserve of trained judges consisting of government employees and private citizens who could be brought in by ESD during busy times.
Another major priority of the legislation is the correction of the often confusing website of the agency և its automated notifications.
Critics point to a situation last fall when many unemployed federal benefit applicants did not understand the ESD notice, which said their federal entitlement was probably ending. After thousands of plaintiffs did not respond correctly, many received timely notices at all, demanding the return of thousands of dollars in federal benefits. (ESD eventually suspended the eligibility process, which caused confusing notifications).
Such notices were “discouraging” for the plaintiffs, who were “already struggling for months and months to get their unemployment,” said Ina Mosbruker, R-Goldendale.
The automated ESD notification system has also generated a number of erroneous 1099-G tax returns for Washington residents, whose identities have been used to file false unemployment claims. Onsted, a Renton resident, said he received the notice in January, although he alerted the ESD of fraud in May and then contacted the agency at least five times before receiving the 1099 adjusted letter. (ESD says it has now sent targeted 1099s to anyone who requested them).
SB 5193 requires ESD to “certify [that] “Written communications are verified in plain language.” If any communication fails the test, the law instructs the ESD to “consider” switching to manually created notifications before the agency can update its automated system.
ESD officials say they have already made significant improvements. The new Customer Experience team is improving notifications. The agency has been staffing since the outbreak. Given last week’s number of applicants who have not yet received ESD benefits են awaiting an ESD decision, last week it was around 8,800, or less than it was at the end of 2020. Nick Demeris.
But lawmakers want to ensure that improvements continue even after the epidemic.
To this end, SB 5193 ESD is subject to quarterly legislative review of key remedies, including the number of lawsuits, such as call center volumes, retention hours, missed calls, and “all-chain busy messages.” It also requires the agency to post performance data on the online dashboard.
“If there is something that is not being done, something that needs to be addressed, we can ask for it in law,” said Kaiser, adding that ESD would wait for additional oversight from the recently re-established advisory committee. by business և workforce. communities. After the epidemic, “ESD will receive more information and guidance than ever before.”
Lawmakers also want to address the problem of unemployment outside the ESD. One bill would expand the state’s jurisdiction for workers who often struggled to get benefits during the epidemic, including some drivers-workers who voluntarily refused to care for family members, Berry said.
Lawmakers also want to help other government agencies burdened with epidemic cuts.
At the State Administrative Hearing Office (OAH), for example, more than 31,000 plaintiffs are waiting to file a dispute over unemployment, սովորական the usual (pre-epidemic) one-month wait for an appeal decision is now four months, says Oor’s Lorraine Lee, Chief Administrative Officer, Feb. 5. in a letter to lawmakers. Without a temporary increase in staff funding, Lee warns that the backlog will “increase by almost 70,000 appeals, with a waiting period of 23 months.”
But some advocates say the proposed reforms do not go far enough or have weakened as a result of the changes.
According to SB 5193, quarterly ESD reviews will continue only until 22 2022 և The agency should publish performance indicators only if the state unemployment rate exceeds 5%.
Advocates are also unhappy that SB 5193 requires ESD to simply study or “explore” other proposed improvements. These include automatic “triggers” that will boost the threshold of certain staff workloads. ելը The litigation model, which each plaintiff links to one ESD employee through the lawsuit.
“The State Senate passed much of the bill,” said Ann Paxton, Seattle’s director of policy on the Spoken-based Unemployment Bill, which represents plaintiffs appealing their claims.
Employee Washington, an employee advocacy group, believes lawmakers should also require the ESD to determine plaintiff jurisdiction within three weeks. “We think this is a solution that really forces us to make other changes,” said Sage Wilson, spokesman for the rest of the claims process.
Lawmakers say they will reconsider if plaintiffs tell them the reforms do not work. “If their needs are not met, then control is key; it is absolutely necessary to address them,” said Dan Bronoske, chief executive of D-Lakewood HB 1487.
Even remedies that seem to become the law can immediately make things easier for employees. Kaiser says it takes time to train judges, to try notifications for clarity, “it will not happen overnight.”
That means plaintiffs may see more delays, as ESD is working on an expected wave of unemployment claims next month if Congress extends federal benefits.
The slow pace of reform could also mean some tough choices for Washington, like Friskie, who can no longer wait to reap the benefits.
At the beginning of the epidemic, the 68-year-old man stopped his band for delivery services like DoorDash because he did not want to risk his health. But without the $ 211 weekly federal benefit he received, Friskia says she has run out of small savings and will have to start driving for DoorDash again.
Adding to her anger, Friskia says the ESD has demanded that she repay some of the $ 5,000 in benefits she received last year, suggesting she fraudulently obtained the funds. “It’s a serious charge,” said Friskia. “It simply came to our notice then. “It’s almost like criminalizing people.”