— An open letter to Governor Inslee and ESD Commissioner LeVine — 3 Steps for getting money to Workers

“The unemployment system is in crisis. We urge you to prioritize getting money into workers’ hands as quickly as possible.”
April 29, 2020
Dear Governor Inslee & Commissioner LeVine:
As the coronavirus shutdown has effectively eliminated work opportunities in entire sectors of the economy, unemployment insurance has become a critical lifeline for hundreds of thousands of working people across our state who are jobless and struggling to pay their bills, feed their families, and afford their homes. We count on your leadership to get unemployment assistance to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible.
We applaud the governor’s early executive orders that expanded access to unemployment for workers who experienced COVID-19 related job separations and the Employment Security Department’s efforts to eliminate work search requirements and create additional flexibility in other areas. Washington is once again seen as setting the standard nationwide. However, in these unprecedented times, more must be done.
We continue to hear from workers who are unable to file claims, bewildered by technical language and contradictory instructions, put on hold for hours at a time when they try to call to address these issues, and then left waiting weeks for their individual cases to be addressed with no clear next steps and no timeline for resolution. The hardship is compounded for individuals who do not have ready access to a computer or the internet, have limited English proficiency, or have a disability that requires additional access accommodations. And while ESD has committed to pay benefits retroactively once claims are adjudicated, this does not address the intensity of the need being faced by workers who were living paycheck-to-paycheck before the crisis, and are now left waiting weeks for resolution of the claims with zero income.
The unemployment system is in crisis, and Washington can do better at providing income support and effectively leveraging federal funds earmarked for this purpose.
We urge you to take these three steps to prioritize getting money into workers’ hands as quickly as possible:
1. Confirm baseline eligibility within 7 days.
Workers often report being left on “pending” status for weeks on end without any guidance or additional information as their eligibility for state unemployment is determined. We urge ESD to rapidly assess baseline eligibility for unemployment benefits simply by confirming if state records show more than 680 hours reported during the base year, and allowing workers to self-certify their reason for separation and their availability to work. A swift assessment will allow workers who are initially denied state unemployment benefits to immediately apply for expanded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.
2. Immediately begin paying the minimum benefit as soon as baseline eligibility is determined.
Once an applicant’s baseline eligibility has been confirmed, they should immediately begin to receive at least the minimum unemployment insurance benefit, including the $600 federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation. Any later fact-finding determinations which eventually result in adjustments to amounts of benefit payment, employer experience ratings, or sources of monies backing benefits can be addressed through funds transfers or benefit adjustments. In no case should a worker have benefits reduced without first having access to an appeals process.
3. Make the system work equitably for everyone.
Many unemployed workers are struggling to access their benefits, and due to inequities in access to broadband and insufficient translation resources, workers of color and immigrant workers are disproportionately likely to face obstacles to accessing the online system to successfully file claims. When workers who can’t access the online system have specific questions or issues, they must then turn to the overwhelmed phone system — which means they may be unable to file their claims at all. The state must ensure all applicants have equitable access to benefits regardless of translation needs or technology access by ensuring clear consistent communications to claimants; by providing a dedicated phone number for those who require access to interpretation; and by making the online filing system available in the fifteen languages in which the department already provides translation support. ESD must also take additional steps to accommodate gig workers, people who work in less formal sectors of the economy, and those who get significant income in the form of tips by allowing flexible documentation of income, including via 1099s, paystubs, bank deposit records, invoices, and receipts.
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Additionally, we urge you to monitor implementation of these adjustments by regularly reporting on key performance indicators including average wait time between filing and benefit payments, average response time by phone and to online messages (broken down by language), and denial rate for conventional unemployment and PUA (broken down by reasons for denials).
Social distancing measures disproportionately impact low-wage service work, gig work, domestic work, and other financially precarious sectors that are more likely to employ workers of color and immigrants. Many of these workers have also been historically excluded from worker protections like unemployment but should now have access to benefits through the CARES Act. How ESD chooses to roll out access to these benefits will either address or exacerbate existing racial and economic disparities in the state.
By taking these three bold steps to prioritize getting money into workers’ hands as quickly as possible, the state can continue to set the national standard in providing critical income support to people who have lost their work during this crisis. We look forward to hearing your plan to move promptly to adopt these policies.
Signed by IBEW Local 46; Ironworkers Local 86; SEIU 775; Unemployment Law Project; UNITE HERE Local 8; Washington Low Income Housing Alliance; Washington State Building & Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO; Working Washington.