Washington Army and Air National Guard soldiers confer in an operations room at Camp Murray in May. The state of Washington called in the National Guard to help process unemployment benefit claims as officials grappled with a backlog caused in part by a fraud ring that stole more than half a billion dollars in jobless aid. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press file photo)

Washington Army and Air National Guard soldiers confer in an operations room at Camp Murray in May. The state of Washington called in the National Guard to help process unemployment benefit claims as officials grappled with a backlog caused in part by a fraud ring that stole more than half a billion dollars in jobless aid. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press file photo)

Editorial: Take steps to make most of next jobless aid bill

State and federal authorities need to improve delivery of unemployment benefits for covid relief.

By The Herald Editorial Board

It was probably to be expected that handing out more than $12 billion in state and federal unemployment benefits to Washington state residents during our pandemic year wouldn’t go smoothly.

That it hasn’t is an understatement, but that doesn’t mean the process can’t be greatly improved, especially as Congress considers more — and desperately vital — support for those who remain jobless, have recently become unemployed or are threatened with losing jobs because of new restrictions to fight covid during the pandemic’s recent and worst surge.

A bipartisan group of moderate U.S. senators are pursuing adoption of a $908 billion package of relief before the end of the year. Included in that package would be a resumption of additional federal unemployment benefits of $300 a week, a decrease from the earlier benefit of $600 a week that expired at the end of July.

But if Washington state is to avoid a repeat of the flood of claims coming in to an unprepared and overwhelmed state agency — which opened the door to identity thieves and caused excruciating delays in delivering benefits for legitimate claims — then there are efforts needed at the state and federal level to find the problems and avoid leaving intended recipients to wait again or — worse — being asked to repay aid they’ve already received.

At the state level, the Washington Employment Security Department must fully cooperate with the office of State Auditor Pat McCarthy, with investigations of problems in delivering that aid. In addition to three routine annual audits, McCarthy’s office is also undertaking a special performance audit of the unemployment agency and an audit of its information technology (IT) systems. One of the routine audits, which reviews the department’s accountability, was nearly complete when reports of the fraudulent claims came to light; that report is expected later this month.

But those investigations depend on the auditor’s office being provided access to the ESD’s staff and records.

After months of apparent foot-dragging by the ESD and its appointed chief, Commissioner Suzi LeVine, McCarthy publicly admonished LeVine for setting unreasonable conditions for interviewing key agency staff and in delaying access to relevant documents, The Seattle Times reported earlier this week.

Among the most obvious failures was the theft, reported in May, of $576 million in benefits by identity thieves, of which $356 million has been recovered, according to the ESD. Washington, which wasn’t the only state to fall victim to the theft of pandemic relief funds, didn’t anticipate thieves would take advantage of the crush of unemployment claims, a desire to deliver benefits as quickly as possible and a software problem that had been identified earlier but not dealt with.

But the Times report says McCarthy’s office has for months sought interviews and documents related to the theft and documentation of the money that has been recovered. Some of that documentation has now been provided, but not until Nov. 20.

LeVine, in a Nov. 29 statement on the department’s website, insists that her office welcomes the audits, recognizes their importance and is committed to a secure and improved unemployment system, but she falls back on the excuse that her office is facing not only audits from the state but investigations from federal agencies, including the departments of Labor and Justice, on top of her staff’s daily work.

“Many of the same staff who need to respond to the audits are also critical to the delivery of benefits, which are a lifeline to our customers,” LeVine wrote.

But day-to-day responsibilities shouldn’t prevent ESD staff from meeting with state auditors and providing necessary records, especially if the auditor’s investigations can lead to suggestions and reforms that might streamline the work of the ESD. The whole reason for the performance audits that all state agencies and programs are expected to undergo is to find ways to efficiently and effectively deliver services to state residents.

Yet, point taken about the need for more resources for the agency as it works to improve its responsiveness and security. And that’s where federal aid, better directed, can be of assistance.

Last month, state legislators, Democrats and Republicans, from House and Senate committees on labor issues joined LeVine in writing the state’s congressional delegation, seeking resources and key reforms as Congress considers following rounds of pandemic relief. Among the state lawmakers is state Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, who is chairman of the House committee on Labor and Workplace Safety.

Among the requests in the letter, the lawmakers and LeVine note that Washington state did benefit from $23.7 million from a total $1 billion in money intended to help states administer the federal pandemic relief benefits. As Congress considers similar packages, either before the end of the year or next year, the letter requests another $1 billion to bolster states’ efforts toward staffing, technology, anti-fraud and other needs related to disbursing the aid.

But the letter also requested that Congress change some of the requirements that seem to serve bureaucracy more than the people deserving jobless benefits. State lawmakers asked for provision of time and resources as federal relief programs resume; and a waiver of a requirement that has required some 26,000 in Washington state to repay federal aid or reapply for state benefits after one federal aid program expired. Some of the 26,000 were unaware they had to reapply to keep their benefits and others had difficulty contacting the ESD, Sells said, resulting in the orders for repayment.

Under state law, the ESD can waive overpayments of state unemployment insurance if it finds that recovery would be against “equity and good conscience.” The letter seeks the same ability regarding federal pandemic jobless benefits.

So far, the federal government has provided some $4 trillion in aid in response to the covid-19 pandemic and its economic downturn in the form of grants, loans and tax breaks; $884 billion of that went to unemployed workers and families. Not all of that, unfortunately, landed in the right pockets; still what did has helped millions of unemployed workers support their families. In turn, that money has buoyed local economies.

With hope in sight for an end to the pandemic, more care and more preparation is necessary to make the most of relief packages that must follow to support the nation’s recovery and the well being of individuals and families until the pandemic has passed.

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