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Governor Inslee signs bill to reform state’s unemployment system

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

If there is ever another unemployment crisis like the one seen this past year, the state’s Employment Security system should be better equipped to handle it, thanks to the bill just signed by the governor.

Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 5193 puts into place a series of reforms intended to give ESD the resources and powers it needs when unemployment levels rise quickly, as happened in March 2020.

The bipartisan bill creates a reserve group of staffers who can come in, answer phones and work with claimants to adjudicate claims when unemployment hits certain high levels.

“Senate Bill 5193 increases the number of certified trained people who can process unemployment claims if the state experiences another unexpected claim surge like it did during the pandemic,” Governor Jay Inslee explained.

House, Senate pass bills to improve state’s unemployment system

The bill also requires that ESD’s letters to claimants, whether concerning a benefits denial, appeal, or other determination, be written in plainer, simpler terms, so people can easily understand them. The letters have received criticism from legislators and unemployment claimants alike for using too complex of language.

“Some individual worker will get a letter in the mail and it literally makes no sense,” Rep. Liz Berry (D-Seattle) told KIRO Radio earlier this year. “So then they’re more confused because they try to call ESD, and they can’t get a live human on the phone.”

For those who speak English as a second language, the letters can be especially hard to understand — so the bill also requires that a special, toll-free phone line be set up for people whose English or internet access is limited.

“This bill makes changes in how customers interact with the Unemployment Insurance navigation options,” Inslee said. “This includes expanding language access and adding a phone line to help various demographics, such as people with disabilities, or people who don’t have access to a computer to apply for these benefits.”

ESD will also need to display information regularly in an online dashboard and in reports to legislators. Those reports will need to include statistics such as number of claims paid, number of claims denied, number of claims in adjudication, number of people in appeals, call volume, hold times, number of dropped calls, and other metrics.

ESD told KIRO Radio it is working with legislators on these changes and will implement the actions required by the new law.

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