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Working Washington report calls Employment Security ‘system failure’

A stack of unemployment forms. (Getty Images)

Workers’ rights group Working Washington is calling the state’s Employment Security Department a “failure.”

In a new report titled “System Failure,” Working Washington shows how easy it is to end up in adjudication or denied benefits altogether from Employment Security.

“We have a system which is designed to lean toward rejecting claims, rather than paying benefits,” he said Sage Wilson, a spokesperson for Working Washington.

To date, there are still more than 20,000 people waiting to see if they qualify for benefits. People out of work have told KIRO Radio that they have waited for months with neither word nor money from ESD, in the meantime having to figure out how to put food on the table.

A look at Washington state’s five Employment Security audits

Wilson said the system gives people the very opposite of the benefit of the doubt, noting that the simplest of discrepancies in paperwork can land a person in months of unemployment limbo.

“Almost any kind of technical mistake — something as simple as a name or a date mismatch on two sets of records — generally triggers what they call a flag or a rejection,” Wilson said.

As an example, he said, “Say your employer records your hours under a nickname, say Susie, and you fill out the form as Susan — things as simple as that, which are glitches in the truest way, can turn into a spiral of waiting or rejection.”

The report states that this falls disproportionately on people of color, especially as language barriers could contribute to an error or misunderstanding on an unemployment form. With people reporting that they are not able to get through on the phone to ESD representatives, getting clarification about a question on an unemployment form is not always easy. The report also notes that people who are concerned about undocumented relatives being deported may not contact ESD out of fear.

Additionally, Wilson said the delay in payments has pushed some immuno-compromised individuals to go back to jobs that could possibly expose them to COVID-19, because they are unable to get a single dollar from ESD.

“We’ve talked to people who feel like they’re left with no choice but to seek work again, even if they’re high-risk for COVID or have a high-risk family member and really ought to be staying at home,” he said.

Working Washington wants to see ESD set a strict deadline to review cases, even if this means hiring more people to get the work done faster.

“Having a sharp, short timeline that really holds them to accounts to make decisions so people can move forward with their lives is a really key thing,” Wilson said.

He noted that the state brought in the National Guard when fraudsters attacked the unemployment system in the spring.

“If they can mobilize all of those people, bring the National Guard in, to find who they need to reject for fraud — which is the right thing to have done — they can mobilize a bunch of people to find who they need to be paying benefits to in an economic crisis,” Wilson said.

They want the goal to be a system that defaults to paying people, without giving up security measures against fraud.

“I certainly think they need to be verifying identities, for sure, and I also don’t think that that is a 22-week process,” Wilson said. “And it really is about setting as their north star, ‘We’re going to pay benefits to as many eligible people as possible.'”

Working Washington also wants to see previous denials reviewed, in case some of these should be reversed. At least half of people who appealed denials in the past several months had their cases determined — which leads Working Washington to wonder how many denials were made incorrectly.

In a statement, Employment Security Commissioner Suzi LeVine said unemployment benefits have been paid, on average, within 13 days.

“This crisis is shining a spotlight on the complexities and limitations of the unemployment insurance system and we are hopeful that this will be an inflection point and catalyst nationally and locally to rethink how we build and deliver our social safety net to meet everyone’s needs,” she said.

She noted that ESD has established an Unemployment Insurance Advisory Committee made up of employer and employee representatives in the hopes of improving the system.

“In the near term, at ESD, we have been working as quickly as we can to make our customer experience more user friendly,” she said. “While we have done more in a shorter period time — we know that we still have a long way to go … We remain laser focused on getting benefits to everyone who is eligible in a timely manner … To those who are currently not receiving payment and whose issues need to be resolved, we are deeply sorry for the frustration and hardship these delays can cause and are working to resolve your claims as soon as possible.”

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