A look at Washington state’s five Employment Security Department audits

Sep 28, 2020, 11:24 AM | Updated: 12:13 pm
unemployment benefits, audits, unemployment tax...

In a year that has seen hundreds of millions of dollars paid out to fraudsters while tens of thousands of Washingtonians wait months for unemployment benefits, the State Auditor’s Office is in the middle of five audits with the Employment Security Department.

The five audits — three of which were regularly scheduled, and two of which are in response to this year’s situation — are meant to examine both the fraud and the backlog in payments with people.

“What we’re working to do is address three main areas of concern,” said Kathleen Cooper, communications director for the Auditor’s Office. “One is the large-scale benefits fraud, the second is the delay in benefits payments that many Washingtonians experience, and then the third is the lack of response to people’s inquiries about those benefits.”

Hundreds of people out of work have told KIRO Radio that they have waited since the spring for their benefits. Many said they have received no response to their calls and emails over the months.

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The three regularly-scheduled audits include a financial audit looking at financial transactions, an accountability audit to make sure public assets were protected and laws were followed, and a federal audit to look at how federal money was spent.

An IT systems audit is among the two new audits.

“The IT systems audit will look at the technology systems that underlie the unemployment benefit systems … the technology that the agency used to help manage all of the applications from people, and how they went about vetting those applications,” Cooper explained.

In addition, a performance audit will determine what exactly went wrong at ESD, recommending best practices and any possible legislation for the future.

“The goal of that is to make sure, of all the work that we did, that we can then put it into a package that is understandable for lawmakers and citizens alike, so that they can make decisions about what steps need to be taken to prevent something like this from happening again,” Cooper said.

The audit reports will be published between December and next spring, with the IT and performance audits coming last. However, action could be taken earlier to change practices at ESD if any glaring red flags are noticed.

“If there is a significant enough problem that could directly affect things that could happen in the future, we work very hard to communicate those things in real time to any of our audited governments … If we evaluate something that’s part of our audit work that we feel could allow for immediate improvement that could really have a meaningful effect, we communicate that right away,” Cooper said.

In the meantime, it’s unclear when the unemployment problems will be solved.

Governor Inslee had previously indicated that the unemployment backlog would be cleared by the end of the month.

“We’re really pleased, we think by the end of September that that queue will be back into a normal setting,” he said at a Sept. 18 press conference. “As you know, we’ve been working diligently to get that down as fast as humanly possible. And we think going forward, there will be a relatively more normal [waiting] time period.”

However, in a statement from Governor Inslee’s office on Friday, it was unclear whether or not the governor would be able to stick to that timeline.

“The next priority is to resume normal wait times for adjudication and achieve a consistent claimant experience. At any time, there will be a percentage of newly filed claims that necessitate action from the department to resolve,” the statement declared. “The queue will never reach zero because we continue to take in new claims every day.”

The statement noted that the number of people waiting for an appeal has gone from 20,000 down to 4,000 this month.

It also reiterated that Governor Inslee stands firmly behind ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine.

“She has been a steady leader through a very difficult time,” the statement read. “We know how frustrating this is for families who have had to wait, and the incredible strain this period economic uncertainty has caused, but the reason for these immense challenges has not been a result of Suzi’s performance in the role.”

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A look at Washington state’s five Employment Security Department audits