House, Senate pass set of bills to improve unemployment system
UPDATE: A fourth unemployment-related bill has now passed the House and Senate as of Wednesday. Substitute House Bill 1455 stops the Employment Security Department and the Department of Labor and Industries from using people’s full social security numbers in correspondence with non-governmental third parties, except in financial transactions, encrypted messages, or cases where the full number is required by law. Legislators said the goal of the bill was to prevent fraud attacks like the one at Employment Security last year.
Three bills to help the state’s unemployment system have now passed both chambers in the Legislature.
On Monday, the House unanimously passed Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 5193, which puts into place a set of reforms at the Employment Security Department. The bill creates a training program to form a team of emergency adjudicators who can be on-hand for any future crises like the current one.
“This bill will allow the Employment Security Department to create a reserve force of adjudicators which will address additional workloads in cases of economic emergency,” explained Rep. Dan Bronoske (D-Lakewood).
The bill also mandates that letters to claimants be written in plain, easily-understood language, and a toll-free phone line be set up for people with a lack of access to internet, disabilities, or difficulties with English.
Additionally, ESD must provide regular reports to the Legislature on statistics such as: how many people are in adjudication, the number of claims paid, denied, in adjudication, and appealed; call volume and hold times; and ratio of phone staff to claimants. The department must also maintain an online dashboard. ESD does currently have a benefits data dashboard, but some information is temporarily unavailable, including the number of people waiting on claims.
The department will also work with its Unemployment Insurance Advisory Committee to explore translating letters to claimants into other languages spoken by Washingtonians, using a caseworker approach with claimants, and setting up specific numbers of claims and phones calls that would trigger the addition of more staff members.
Bronoske said that a big reason for the long delays in receiving unemployment over the past year is that ESD did not have the tools it needed to serve Great Depression-levels of unemployed Washingtonians.
“The Employment Security Department was never set up to address the kind of case loads that they have seen over the course of the past year, or that they continue to see,” Bronoske explained.
The same day, the House also passed Substitute Senate Bill 5425, which adds seven additional weeks of extended benefits for a total of 20 weeks, removes the usual waiting period, and allows ESD more flexibility when the federal government modifies the policies around unemployment. Federally-funded extended benefits kick in during times of high unemployment when a person has been receiving unemployment benefits for a year.
Both of these bills had previously been passed by the Senate, though the House added an amendment to Senate Bill 5193.
Meanwhile, the Senate passed Substitute House Bill 1493, which creates more flexibility in the next three years around the requirement to show you’re looking for work to get unemployment.
The requirement for three job search activities per week has been suspended by the governor and Legislature during the pandemic, but when it comes back, ESD will have the power to broaden what is considered a job search activity, and allow more virtual activities to count. For example, instead of just applying for a job or doing a job search activity at a local unemployment office, a person could watch a YouTube video about how to perform well in a job interview, could write an elevator pitch, or could update their resume.
ESD will also be able to quickly change the job search requirement for certain parts of the state in times of crisis. For example, the requirement could be temporarily eliminated or changed to just one work search activity per week for Central Washington if there were a wildfire there that impacted how many jobs were available.
“It allows ESD some flexibility … but still holds them accountable,” said Rep. Curtis King (R-Yakima).
ESD told KIRO Radio it is working with legislators throughout the process and will implement any bills that become law.