Employment Security employees may not hose down blazing wildfires or race to disaster scenes with first-responders, but they’re in the trenches during state emergencies. Whether for landslides, wildfires or other natural catastrophes, the agency often deploys employees to disaster scenes to help victims.
This year has been disaster-heavy in Washington, with a giant mudslide in March and wildfires in Eastern Washington. Employees across the agency have been involved in both from the start.
When the mudslide hit in Snohomish County, President Obama declared the situation a level-A major disaster, triggering federal aid, including Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA). This program pays unemployment benefits to victims who are unemployed as a direct result of a disaster, and who are not eligible to receive regular unemployment benefits.
A team effort
“The last time DUA was activated was five years ago [during flooding in Lewis County], and then it was allowed to lapse. We rebuilt the program,” said an employee who works on agency policy.
Employees Matt Buelow, Phil Diehl and Karel Schloe in the policy unit coordinated with Gene Walker at the unemployment claims center, and Anne Northrup and Vickie Coleman in the technology division to set up a dedicated phone line for victims to file claims and ask questions.
Trina Bond took calls from claimants. Communications Office employees posted information on the agency’s website and alerted the media. Other employees created a database to make the special benefits payments, ensured proper budgeting and manually issued payments to claimants.
Then, in the same way the agency deploys “rapid-response” teams to factories and worksites in the throes of mass layoffs, bringing information about unemployment benefits and training to shell-shocked workers, Employment Security employees deployed to offer DUA to landslide victims.
Disaster Recovery Centers
WorkSource offices in Snohomish County sent three employment specialists to disaster-recovery centers (DRCs) in Darrington, Arlington and Oso, where representatives from many state agencies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) set up shop.
In addition, eight members of the Washington Service Corps (administered by Employment Security) serving at the Red Cross and King County Office of Emergency Management were dispatched near the disaster site to help.
“The Governor wanted state government represented there,” said Matt Buelow. “We gave each WorkSource employee a cellphone to call us for questions, and since the DRCs were open late and on weekends, we made sure someone [with expertise in unemployment insurance] was covering what we affectionately called ‘the bat phone.’ People took turns working late hours.
“It was amazing,” Buelow said. “So many people wanted to help cover the phone, I was turning people away.”
John Landin, Kathie Harrison and Theresa Myklebust were the three WorkSource employees deployed to the DRCs, which were set up at points along State Route 530: Oso in the middle, with Arlington to the west and Darrington to the east.
Landin, Harrison and Myklebust spent long hours, six days a week, for an entire month at the three sites. They helped victims apply for regular unemployment benefits and DUA, advertised agency services at local restaurants and town-hall meetings, and connected victims with other state services.
Their work was similar at each site, but their experiences were very different, they said.
“It was quite possibly the biggest emotional roller coaster I’ve ever been on,” said Landin of WorkSource Everett, who was stationed in Oso, about four miles from the actual disaster site. “Most of the people I spoke to had lost a family member. It tugs at your soul.”
At the same time, he said the experience was very rewarding.
“Out of all the public service I’ve been able to do, this topped them all,” John said.
Harrison, who normally works at WorkSource Skagit County, was stationed in Darrington, about 15 miles east of Oso. The biggest need there was gas vouchers for residents who had to drive many miles around the disaster site to jobs on the other side, she said.
“The tragedy touched everybody in Darrington for every reason,” Harrison said. “I talked to employers about Shared Work [Employment Security’s layoff avoidance program] and [federal] resources. I gave job referrals and spread the word about the National Emergency Grant.”
National Emergency Grant
In partnership with Workforce Snohomish, Employment Security wrote a grant to employ 140 workers dislocated as a result of the landslide. Randy Bachman took the lead and succeeded in landing the $2.9 million grant.
Workforce Snohomish placed the workers, who currently are cleaning up the disaster site, restoring hiking trails and refurbishing Darrington’s rodeo grounds. The grant runs out in October, but WorkSource is helping these workers find new jobs.
On the other side of Oso, about 15 miles to the west, Theresa Myklebust of WorkSource Mountlake Terrace worked in the Arlington DRC.
“Everyone there knew someone who was affected by the slide,” she said.
As a resident of Arlington with a family history in Oso, Myklebust said her small-town roots helped victims feel at ease.
At a town-hall meeting, surrounded by an aide from Sen. Patty Murray’s office, the local mayor and other dignitaries, Theresa told the crowd she was an Arlington resident for 24 years.
“I got a big smile, and you could feel the air leave the room [from relief],” Myklebust said. “Overall, it was an experience I’ll never forget. We still feel it every day. I’m there. It’s my community.”
Ann Hartman is ESD’s Internal Communications Manager.