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Is WA unemployment head ‘failing up’ with new role in Biden administration?

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

The Washington Employment Security Department had some early success, and then a dramatic year of failure to distribute unemployment checks, not to mention being defrauded out of millions of dollars. So many may have been caught off guard when the departing head of the department, Suzi LeVine, landed a new role with the Biden administration.

Seattle Times reporters Paul Roberts and Jim Brunner joined KIRO Nights to discuss how LeVine will essentially be doing the same job at the federal level, and what the reaction has been.

“The report in Bloomberg Law said that LeVine will be basically running the Employment and Training Administration, which is a sub agency of the Department of Labor, and essentially is the lead agency that handles the employment system. … It’s going to be an essential sort of player in the Biden administration’s response to the pandemic, and LeVine will be both running it and also the political phase of that operation,” Roberts explained.

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As host Mike Lewis noted, LeVine did get a fair bit of praise for modernizing the department, but that modernization didn’t seem to deal with the actual rush of applications, or respond to the massive hack of the system, which initially pushed out $600 million in illicit payments.

When first seen, did this new role look like she was failing upwards? Or as Mike asked, is this not necessarily an acknowledgement of her work in Washington state, but maybe her work prior as a major Democratic fundraiser?

“It’s a mixed bag. I mean, I think that we’ve focused on a lot of very serious problems that have happened both with failing to detect fraud with unemployment payments, … and also then that that gummed up the system for people with legitimate payments, and we’re continuing to hear from people who for months and months still can’t get through to employment security,” Brunner said.

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“So I wasn’t 100% surprised because you look at Suzi LeVine and her career: She was a former Microsoft executive, she was ambassador to Switzerland. And when she was over there, she got interested in workforce training. But, of course, the overarching context politically is that she was a major Democratic Party fundraiser,” Brunner added. “… I think despite the well publicized kind of failures here, she has had respect internally, I think, in this world of employment agency bureaucrats. They see her maybe differently than the average Washingtonian does.”

The questions remains as to how much blame should go to the department when such failures occur in the midst of a once in a lifetime situation.

“It’s a important question because every state ran into a similar sort of tidal wave of unemployment claims, and then most of them were also hit by fraud. … I think that you have to credit LeVine and her staff were sort of dealing with this unprecedented situation,” Roberts said.

“On the other hand, how they responded certainly raised some concerns,” he continued. “I think the question about transparency and their willingness to sort of be open about some of the issues that were going on, I mean, reflected in their slowness in responding to public records requests, it was almost like pulling teeth. And I think that they could have done a better job.”

There’s also the issue of how LeVine and the ESD responded to claims, even as demand was slowing down a bit.

“And it has to do basic stuff because one of the biggest frustrations people had in Washington and elsewhere, but certainly in Washington, was they couldn’t get through,” Roberts added. “So now that there’s fewer claims coming in, they’re still struggling to be as responsible as a lot of folks feel it should be. And now the latest thing is that people are starting to get the 1099 forms, tax forms, where they’re basically being told that they’re going to owe federal tax on unemployment benefits that were taken out fraudulently in their name, but which they never received.”

Listen to KIRO Nights weeknights from 7 – 10 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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