OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee found a new leader Wednesday for the embattled Employment Security Department.
He didn’t have to look far.
Deputy Commissioner Cami Feek will assume the agency reins, succeeding Suzi LeVine, who left in January for a job in President Joe Biden’s administration. Feek has been the acting commissioner since LeVine’s departure.
“She’s an obvious choice,” Inslee said, praising the veteran state employee for her “compassion and knowledge. Her experience is perfect for this position.”
Feek, who said she was “honored and humbled,” acknowledged the myriad challenges facing the department.
“There is no doubt that it has been a difficult time for all of us, and I go into this role with my eyes wide open,” she said.
Also Wednesday, Inslee said the state is closing in on the vaccination threshold to fully reopen the state.
The governor intends to lift nearly all COVID-19 restrictions on businesses and social activity on June 30 — or earlier if 70% of state residents 16 and older get a vaccine shot prior to that date. As of Wednesday, the figure stood at 66.4% after the addition of 152,000 people vaccinated through the U.S. departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. That data had not previously been provided by the federal agencies.
Inslee did not reveal who won the first vaccine lottery drawing, although lottery spokesman Dan Miller revealed that the winner of the first $250,000 prize drawn on Tuesday was contacted via phone. That information could be released to the public Thursday. Miller said the outreach team made calls to 249 winners of various prizes and encouraged people to “check your voicemail!”
Inslee discussed reopening after announcing his selection of Feek. He chose her after a national search which netted 15 applicants. Eight were interviewed, and four finalists underwent further interviews by a panel, according to the governor’s office. Feek will earn just under $178,000 a year.
She has served as deputy commissioner and chief operating officer for three years. She joined the department in 2017 to set up and run the state’s Paid Family and Medical Leave program.
She began her career in state government in 1996 as business and technology manager for the Department of General Administration, now the Department of Enterprise Services. From 2005 to 2017, she worked in the Attorney General’s Office, the last four years as the director of operations, according to her resume.
She’ll take charge of an agency that has been the target of sharp criticism for protracted delays in unemployment benefit payments and the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars to fraud during the pandemic.
A pair of state audits have since laid bare the challenges wrought by an unprecedented surge in claims in the early months of the pandemic and the numerous shortcomings of the agency’s response, including to the fraud.
In the 70 pages of audits released April 13, officials detailed $13.6 billion in unemployment benefits paid out last year, including at least $647 million which went to imposters from as far away as Nigeria. As of March 2021, the department had recovered $370 million from bad actors.
There are still signs that the agency hasn’t gotten its act together.
In April, the Joint Legislative Audit Review Committee held a public hearing on the audits. Democratic and Republican members vented their frustration with what their constituents endured in 2020, and continue to deal with, in terms of the slow pace of payments and reconciling of issues.
They were particularly peeved the agency was represented by its public affairs director rather than an executive, like the acting commissioner, to answer their questions.
On Wednesday, Feek said she was “not hiding behind anything” and ready to meet with any legislators. She said she hopes they can hire more people and equip them with better technology to speed handling of unresolved claims.
“We are doing everything we can to serve those that are the longest waiting,” she told reporters.
Reporter Jerry Cornfield: email@example.com; @dospueblos