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Group suing Employment Security Department questions appeals process

A sign at the headquarters for Washington state's Employment Security Department at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Good news for people waiting on an unemployment appeal after a denial of benefits: Governor Inslee’s Office says the number of people waiting on appeals has gone from 20,000 to 4,000 in the last month.

But the nonprofit that is suing the Employment Security Department on behalf of people out of work is questioning the appeals process at the ESD.

Andra Kranzler, an attorney with the Unemployment Law Project, questioned why the ESD would be able to resolve so many claims now, when people had been denied for months and received no update about their situation. What changed, she wonders, other than increased scrutiny from the public?

A look at Washington’s five Employment Security Department audits

Between March and August, about 90,000 people filed 109,000 appeals. Just under half of those appeals, about 52,000, had been re-determined as of mid-September, according to numbers obtained by ULP. Another 10,000 were given the same decision as before, and about 15,500 were sent on for an appeal hearing.

“We don’t really understand how they could have resolved [most of] the 90,000 [so quickly] — we’re saying, ‘Great, it’s good that you did, but then in theory, you could have also been giving those people additional payments,'” Kranzler said.

And if all of these people really did qualify for benefits, she wonders how many people could have been getting benefits all along without having to worry how their next bills would be paid — and how many missed out on getting their denial reversed simply because they did not file an appeal.

“Was ESD just denying benefits right and left to people who should have been getting them all along?” she questioned. “And what does that mean — does that mean if you were just one of those people who were unlucky enough not to file an appeal, then did you have an adverse treatment that should have never been adverse?”

It has been a difficult year for the Employment Security Department. The past half-year has seen record unemployment applications coming in at rates not seen since the Great Depression, hundreds of millions of dollars paid to fraudsters, and tens of thousands of people waiting on unemployment benefits, some of them for months without any word from the ESD.

Last week, Gov. Inslee expressed his confidence in Employment Security Commissioner Suzi LeVine, calling her a “steady leader” in a statement to KIRO Radio, and noting that this year’s issues at the ESD have “not been a result of Suzi’s performance in the role.”

Kranzler, however, had a different response.

“ESD failed to exercise its discretion. Susan LeVine did not perform her duty and the hardship was born by hardworking eligible claimants,” Kranzler said in an email. “These workers were made unemployed through no fault of their own. These Washingtonians did not get so much as a timely phone call despite their desperate attempts to contact ESD. The financial catastrophe was born by ESD and the impacts have been grave for so many, it is unconscionable.”

At a mid-September press conference, the governor said he hoped to have the remaining unemployment backlog — then at about 20,000 people waiting to hear if they qualify for benefits — “back into a normal setting” by the end of the month. On Oct. 1, that queue was at about 22,000 people.

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