Washington state's Employment Security Department has been hit hard during the pandemic. There was a dramatic increase in jobless claims when businesses were forced to shut down in the spring. And a crime ring used stolen identities to take hundreds of millions of dollars from the unemployment insurance program.
This weekend, The Seattle Times reported on accusations that ESD was putting up roadblocks as the state auditor's office tried to investigate the fraud.
As agencies have been trying to keep up with pandemic response, state lawmakers have been gearing up for their regular session, which begins in January. They will have a role in fixing some of the vulnerabilities laid bare by the pandemic.
State Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, chairs the Labor and Commerce Committee. She talked to KNKX All Things Considered host Ed Ronco about some of the solutions she'll propose, and the obstacles facing workers who are trying to get help.
On the state’s complicated unemployment system: “People become lost in the maze of the different standards and rules. They have to do a weekly filing and on and on, and if they have any kind of complexity at all, like working for more than one employer or other questions about their eligibility, it can become a really long dispute in the claims process. We’ve had people waiting and desperate to get benefits, worried about losing their homes, not being able to buy groceries, because this is their last defense in terms of their own personal economy.”
On what she’s proposing: “I want to remove some of the barriers. I want to expand unemployment insurance for what’s called “voluntary quits.” In many cases people have had their job duties or workplace standards changed, without any change in pay. Currently, if a person quits under that condition, they don’t qualify for unemployment insurance. I think they should. Other people have had to quit because they can’t get child care. Currently that’s not considered eligible for unemployment insurance and I think parents who have child care or have to care for another vulnerable adult, should be able to qualify for unemployment insurance.”
On planning for January’s new session: “I have a 6-foot table full of proposals and information. We came out of our session (last March) knowing this pandemic was coming our way. We put $200 million in emergency funds into the budget to address various needs for public health. And then we adjourned on time. But we did not stop working. We spent most of the interim expecting to be called back into special session because the first two months of this pandemic saw such a hit to our budget.
“Then, oddly enough, about mid-summer the budget stabilized and started to grow unexpectedly. This is the unequal economy we have. So we’re going to be going into this session with less of a budget crisis mentality and more of an attitude of ‘what can we do to make our economy more equal?’ How in the world can we address this issue of equity between different sectors when we have this kind of emergency happen again?”