by Employment Security Department Commissioner, Suzi LeVine
Now that the partial government shutdown and the threat of another one are finally over, I’d like to reflect on the exceptional customer service and agility demonstrated during this period by the team I am profoundly blessed to lead at the Employment Security Department.
I started at Employment Security in July. Having worked in both the private and public sectors before this, I came to the job knowing that people choosing this line of work are motivated by doing good and helping people. Their compensation packages contain no stock options.
The crucible of this partial shutdown, however, has shown me that, not only do they care about the people and businesses we serve, but they also demonstrate a resilience, creativity, thoughtfulness, and level of compassion beyond any of my expectations for customer service – especially under urgent conditions. This level of extraordinary service spans from line level to leadership.
I will be the first one (and I often am) to call out concerns when our customer service is not as it should be – and we are far from perfect. In fact, we improve and innovate only when we have freedom to learn from our failures and our fallibility. Over the past few years, some of those failures have come out in the most public of venues with TV and radio consumer watchdogs reporting on our work. And our teams have hunkered down and gotten better.
But what you don’t usually hear about publicly are the customer service calls that DON’T come in. News stations don’t usually cover when our teams are so good and competent that they proactively address people’s needs and no one knows about it. The media don’t hear about when we work for days and hours to tackle complexities and roadblocks so that the customer has a seamless and uneventful experience. “Uneventful” and “No Issues” don’t make very scintillating headlines.
In the case of this partial shutdown, let me tell you – the complexities, the shifts, the non-standard situations, and the hour-by-hour questions made “Uneventful” and “No Issues” a doggone miracle!
I want to share just three examples. Now, again, I’m not asserting that we didn’t have hiccups. Also – there are always moments when customers don’t get exactly what they want because of legal boundaries to our system. But these stories exemplify how ESD employees did everything in their power to support their fellow public servants in a very trying time.
When a person applies for unemployment benefits, one of the first steps is for ESD to verify that the claimant’s reported wages match what their employer reports. Only then can ESD determine if, how much, and how long to provide benefits. With the partial shutdown, the employers (federal agencies) were shut down and not available to verify wages. Within one day, ESD formed a special team to manually verify wages with paystubs and W-2s. The team also was able to get checks into furloughed federal workers’ hands within the standard time, despite the extra care needed for these claims. All of this happened with little impact to overall response time in the unemployment call centers.
For both furloughed workers, and eventually, the “essential” full-time federal workers, ESD used a tool in state unemployment law called “standby.” A worker in standby status can receive benefits without having to search for work if they have a promise from their employer to return to a job. After four weeks, a standby claim must be renewed by both employee and employer, and the employer needs to re-certify that they are still planning to bring that person back to work.
Knowing that the shutdown persisted and recognizing that employers might not be able to respond after four weeks because they were still closed, ESD proactively extended standby for over 1,500 claims from furloughed workers. That way, without effort (or even awareness) on the part of the federal furloughed employees, no gap in benefits occurred. ESD’s work resulted in many customer calls we DIDN’T get! The entire agency pitched in.
Because the call center team was on high alert receiving new claims from federal workers on the day when they needed to be renewed, ESD’s policy team did all the standby extensions manually, all while continuing to guide operational staff managing an extraordinarily unique situation. I even joined the effort and made the extensions on a couple of the claims. I’m proud to say that Paul and Raul (I’ll keep their last names confidential) were able to continue receiving their benefits.
Changing denials to approvals
Over the past month, almost five dozen “excepted” or “essential” workers applied for benefits but, sadly, were denied according to unemployment law. With his announcement on Jan. 24, Gov. Inslee authorized extending benefits to those “excepted” workers. The ESD team then proactively called all those who had been denied and restarted their claims.
The good news is that all the affected federal workers have received (or soon will receive) their back pay and ESD won’t need to receive or process claims for them. However, ESD staff is now contacting those who have received benefits and back pay and setting up plans to pay us back the benefits they received. Unemployment insurance law states that any worker who receives back pay after receiving unemployment benefits must repay benefits received.
We realize, however, that the repayment might not be easy nor immediate for many. In a final and bonus example of exceptional service, our team is prepared to work with each person individually on their repayment plans to make repayment as painless as possible. Here’s how!
The ESD team has been helping — and will keep helping — these federal workers. Some may say, “Well, they’re just doing their jobs!” That’s true. But I hope these examples help you see how ESD’s public servants, when put to a very challenging test, “just did their jobs” with thoughtfulness and compassion, and without any fanfare or headlines.