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Head of WA unemployment office leaving to join Biden administration

Gov. Jay Inslee alongside ESD Commissioner Suzie LeVine. (ESD, Facebook)

The head of Washington state’s unemployment office is leaving for a job with the Biden-Harris administration.

In a statement, Governor Jay Inslee praised Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine for leading the department “through an extremely challenging time,” and drew attention the “successful implementation” of the state’s Paid Family and Medical Leave program during her tenure.

Criticism and strategizing for Employment Security before Legislature

LeVine was appointed to head the ESD in 2018 by Gov. Inslee, and confirmed by the state Senate in the following legislative session. Her tenure was marked by unprecedented unemployment because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to massive fraud and delays in getting payments to Washington residents over the course of the last year.

It’s unclear at this time what job LeVine is taking with the new administration, but she has served as an ambassador for the U.S. government in the past. She will be leaving at the end of January, with her new position effective Feb. 1, 2021.

Cami Feek, currently the agency’s deputy commissioner and chief operating officer, will step in as acting commissioner for the ESD until a permanent replacement is appointed by the governor.

Senator Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, who sits on the committee that oversees the ESD and has been a vocal critic of the department’s failures, tells KIRO Radio that LeVine should’ve stepped down gracefully a long time ago.

“I’m very disappointed that the Biden administration chose to reward incompetence,” Schoesler said. “The honorable thing would’ve been to resign months ago.”

He believes this job was a political favor from Governor Inslee.

“I think it’s no coincidence that the governor’s chief of staff is on the Biden transition team, and they found a soft landing place for an incompetent [ESD commissioner], but effective Democrat bundler.”

Schoesler says his office and the offices of all of his colleagues in the Legislature have been doing the ESD’s job for them, answering pleas from constituents who have not received their unemployment and cannot get through to the ESD.

“Our office has tirelessly worked to make this happen,” Schoesler said. “Our legislative assistants … didn’t sign up to be the auxiliary arm of ESD, but they did it.”

The Unemployment Law Project, which represents claimants at their appeal hearings and has been suing ESD over the unemployment backlog, is hopeful that this will bring about a new era for unemployed Washingtonians.

“We’re hoping that the departure will give Governor Inslee an opportunity to appoint a person who can better manage the system … there is a tremendous opportunity here now, with new leadership, to really be able to improve on a system that really needs a massive overhaul,” said John Tirpak, the executive director of the nonprofit.

The ULP believes that under LeVine’s leadership, the department did not do a great job of responding to claimants’ questions and getting funds out quickly. Tirpak noted that they are still hearing from people who have been waiting since March — nearly a year — to receive their unemployment benefits.

“It was an unprecedented challenge for the department, but the response was not effective,” he said. “There was time to provide adequate staffing and to upgrade systems to provide access, and some efforts were made, but it was not enough.”

Sen. Phil Fortunato took a different tone in his response to the news.

“I didn’t see what position the outgoing commissioner will be taking in the new administration, but I think she’d be a perfect fit for the ambassador to Nigeria,” he said.

This was likely in reference to the Nigerian scammers behind the fraud attack.

“There’s a strategy in corporate America that if you have an incompetent manager, you promote them to a job where they can’t do any harm,” Fortunato said. “For me, I’d like to thank President Biden because he seems to be helping out our state by promoting incompetence … It’s funny as heck that he’s actually saving us from having to fire her.”

The KIRO Radio Newsdesk and KIRO Radio’s Nicole Jennings contributed to this report.

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