The global COVID-19 pandemic upended life across the nation, leading to exceptional numbers of people eligible to receive unemployment benefits. Washington saw unprecedented insurance claim volumes, and the Employment Security Department (ESD) struggled to manage the demand. Compounding its challenges in helping clients obtain benefits, the agency was overwhelmed by a barrage of fraudulent claims that eventually forced ESD to adopt new procedures to prevent payments from going to false claimants.
In 2021, the state Legislature passed a bill that responded to widely documented concerns about how ESD managed the crisis. The bill required ESD to report key customer service metrics to the public and Legislature. It also mandated practices to address some specific problems many claimants faced.
This performance audit sought to independently determine whether the agency met the requirements of that legislation and to what extent its customer service had improved.
Overall, the audit found the Employment Security Department (ESD) has partially met the law’s new requirements. However, the agency’s efforts appear to have only minimally affected the customer experience. For example, we found that the agency’s procedural changes did not have much effect on two key measures:
How long people waited for their first benefit payment
How long they waited to talk to a customer service representative
Instead, the decline in claims volume, as the pandemic has subsided, had a far greater effect.
We noted that the agency lacked a robust performance management structure. This means its efforts are not set as defined or actionable measures, tied to the strategic plan. Without a way to assess whether its changes have positively affected customer service, ESD cannot be sure what contributed most to improvement. In addition, the continued lack of an emergency plan means the agency might struggle in the event of a future surge in claims.
The legislative mandate for this audit asked us to look at the performance of other states’ unemployment claims during the pandemic. We noted several tactics used elsewhere that could help ESD prepare for future emergencies.
In April 2021, the State Auditor’s Office published an audit that identified many of ESD’s customer service challenges in 2020. Even at the end of that audit period, most metrics – including payment times and call center performance – had not begun to show improvement. At that time, ESD continued to operate in crisis mode. The 2021 audit noted that ESD had dramatically increased staffing levels in response to a persistently high workload. However, the agency had yet to see improvements in core customer service measures. While the audit identified what had happened during the pandemic, it did not look at whether ESD was prepared for a future crisis. We made no formal recommendations but strongly encouraged ESD to continue its efforts to address the issues.
This audit answered the following questions:
Has ESD met the requirements of the customer service legislation passed during the 2021 legislative session?
To what extent has the agency improved its customer service since that session?
Does the agency have a quality performance management structure in place for monitoring and improving customer service on an ongoing basis?
Were there practices in other states that resulted in better customer service related to unemployment benefits during the pandemic?
Progress on required improvements
Legislation from 2021 required ESD to establish a reserve force of trained adjudicators, and to improve accessibility and reporting. The audit found that, as of July 2022, ESD had partially implemented requirements aimed at helping speed payments and increase transparency.
With regard to establishing a reserve of trained adjudicators, ESD developed a training program and assembled a group of adjudicators. However, the agency had not taken steps to ensure the training program is sufficient, or that it will be able to deploy the reserve force if needed.
With regard to improving accessibility, ESD explored all but one required area of the legislation with an advisory committee. It also established two of the three required phone lines. However, it only partially addressed legislative reporting requirements.
With regard to reporting, ESD did not clearly address all required metrics in its quarterly reports. Although ESD established an online data dashboard, it included fewer than half of the measures specified in statute. Additionally, ESD issued required Legislative update reports, but some information was unclear or missing.
Service improved as workload dropped
The audit found that ESD’s customer service improved as staff workload declined. The agency did not see improvements in payment times and call center performance until claim volumes dropped to nearly pre-pandemic levels. Payment times worsened until May 2021 and did not show sustained improvement until October 2021. Call center performance also showed no improvement until the very end of 2021. These improvements in outcomes for claimants corresponded to a drop in claimant volume.
By improving the way it tracks payment timeliness and call center metrics, ESD could more effectively monitor customer service improvement. At present, ESD cannot effectively monitor payment timeliness because its tracking method is flawed. Nor does it track call center metrics effectively enough to manage performance.
Performance management is lacking
ESD’s efforts to improve service have shown minimal results, in part because it lacks a robust performance management structure.
For example, we particularly examined the agency’s efforts to improve the letters it sends to claimants. Letters sent during the pandemic confused and alarmed claimants, prompting the legislation that called for improvements. ESD’s benefits management software system generates these letters using templates and individualized information. As of July 2022, ESD had improved only a few customer service letters in production for clarity and tone. Those letters it has revised did not fully meet legislative requirements. And while ESD’s website now has a virtual assistant to improve customer service, it needs further work.
We concluded that some issues may be because the agency has not set defined or actionable customer service measures tied to its strategic plan. ESD’s draft strategic plan for 2022-26 still lacks defined, actionable customer service measures for achieving goals. A better performance management system could help ESD monitor and improve its customer service. Additionally, ESD still lacks an emergency plan for how to better handle future surges in claims.
Ideas from other states
Certain practices helped other states handle increased customer service demands during the pandemic. Their experiences offer examples of promising practices that can help maintain good customer service in a crisis. These practices include:
Designing a system that allows claimants to do as much as possible online
Using data to direct workflows
Conducting data analysis to inform decision making
Augmenting staffing when necessary
Making the most of external communications opportunities
ESD managers reviewed these practices and said the agency either already does or plans to do most of them.
We made a series of recommendations to the Employment Security Department to help it maximize the results of its reforms. Our recommendations specify the agency should fully meet legislative requirements. The agency should be able to demonstrate it has measurably improved its customers’ experience by tracking customer service performance. It should also address other performance management shortcomings.