Some 55,000 Washingtonians may have to pay back thousands of dollars in jobless benefits.
That dismal prospect was shared Thursday by Cami Feek, the state Employment Security Department's (ESD) new acting commissioner, during an update to state lawmakers on Washington's oft-challenged response to pandemic-related job losses.
Feek told a Senate work session that the ESD will be working with the 55,000 claimants who've received repayment notifications after failing to respond to agency requests for information and being ruled ineligible for benefits already received.
"We're going to proactively reach out to them and help them have the right information on how to fix [their eligibility]," Feek told the Senate Labor, Commerce & Tribal Affairs Committee during the work session.
In some cases, claimants may not be required to repay benefits.
Lawmakers seemed startled by the large number of claimants facing the prospect of repayment, a problem that has cropped up frequently as the state has dealt with high volumes of unemployment claims, new federal benefits and changing eligibility rules.
Committee chair Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, said the overpayment notices often hit workers who are still unemployed — "and they're suddenly being told they have to pay back $12,000, and they're just in panic mode."
The number of overpayment notices also reflects the scale of the task Feek and her staff face as they work through a backlog of problems at the ESD while bracing for even more claims under the next phase of federal pandemic benefits.
"It's a massive undertaking," Keiser said.
Still, Keiser and other lawmakers attending the work session said they were largely impressed by the presentation from Feek, who became acting commissioner after Suzi LeVine stepped down from the role in late January.
Feek spoke encouragingly about improvements the agency has made in getting benefits to unemployed workers, but was candid about how far the state has yet to go.
Although the ESD has paid more than $15 billion to hundreds of thousands of workers since the start of the pandemic, "we know that many have been left out," Feek said. "They've been frustrated, stymied and to those workers, we apologize. We are doing everything we can to get them the benefits they qualify for as quickly as possible — but we know it's not enough."
Feek noted that some 9,000 claimants have never been paid any benefits and are still waiting for the ESD to resolve an eligibility question or other issue with their claims. While that tally is down substantially from the peak last spring, when there were well over 50,000 unpaid claimants awaiting agency resolution, Feek said, "we're looking at ways that we can accelerate" that downward trend.
She said the agency's strategy would focus on three areas: improving the agency's "self-service" features, improving its technology, and increasing staff.
To make the claims process user-friendly, the agency is making claimant questions clearer and easier to understand. Such improvements can cut the number of mistakes claimants make — and reduce the volume of calls to the agency help desk, which at peak times can be swamped by more than 100 calls every second, Feek said.
The goal, Feek said, "is to reduce the number of people who get caught on the front end, who get tripped up in that process at the beginning [when they first apply for unemployment] or filing their weekly claim."
The agency is also doubling the time — from five days to 10 — that claimants have to respond to some agency requests for information.
One reason, Feek said, is that claimants often weren't seeing the requests before the five-day deadline had passed because they logged on to the system only once a week to file their weekly claim.
In some cases, a missed deadline could cause the system to automatically classify the claimant as ineligible for benefits already paid — and, Feek said, "the claimant would get a really scary overpayment letter saying they owed us money."
The average dollar amount for claimants receiving an overpayment notice is around $2,000, said ESD spokesperson Nick Demerice, but he noted that some claimants had been asked to repay as much as $20,000.
Feek was careful not to overpromise. After Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, pointed out that the agency had often missed its own deadlines for clearing backlogged claims in the past year, Feek said the ESD was taking a performance-based approach.
Feek said the agency was developing metrics to assess its improving performance. One example is workload: The agency will track both the total number of "issues" flagged on claims and how quickly the agency can resolve those issues.
Feek noted that in January, the agency flagged 1,835,272 individual issues that needed to be resolved — a 16-fold increase from January 2020 — and was able to resolve even more than that number.
But "there's not a magic answer," Feek told lawmakers. "It's going to take changes on multiple fronts."
Lawmakers seemed to appreciate both the amount of data Feek shared and her candor in discussing shortcomings.
Compared with some agency presentations earlier in the pandemic, "I think there's less of a sense of panic," Keiser said. "It was presented in a more thoughtful way."
That was echoed by Sen. Joe Nyugen, D-White Center, a Microsoft program manager who offered to help Feek and her staff review technology issues — an offer Feek accepted.
"They were more collaborative, less defensive and less trying to deflect ... and more like, 'All right, let's just fix this.'"
New jobless claims in Washington fell 7.7% last week even as they rose 1.2% nationwide. The state's unemployment rate reached 6% in January, down from 7.1% in December.