Employment Security Department partially implemented customer service reforms, audit finds

Dec 19, 2022

OLYMPIA – Responding to a request from state lawmakers, the Office of the Washington State Auditor evaluated the Employment Security Department on a number of measures related to customer service during the COVID-19 pandemic. The audit, released today, found that shorter wait times for callers and faster benefit payments to Washington's unemployed are primarily due to a decline in the number of jobless people, not to state reforms.

To address significant customer service issues during a pandemic-related spike in unemployment claims, the Legislature mandated several changes to the administration of the state's unemployment insurance program. While ESD implemented some of the required changes, it was really the drop in the agency's workload that had the largest effect on improving customer service as of the end of our audit period in July 2022.

“The Employment Security Department followed the letter of the law in some areas of reform, but in others more work still has to be done,” said State Auditor Pat McCarthy. “Our audit offers an independent evaluation of the agency's progress on legislative requirements to everyone concerned, including lawmakers, agency leaders and members of the public.”

The bill passed by the Legislature in early 2021 required ESD to address specific problems many benefit claimants faced, to better prepare for a future crisis, and to report key customer service metrics to the public and Legislature.

Lawmakers targeted two areas: shortening the time for claimants to receive their first unemployment benefits, and shortening wait times for customers' calls to be answered. ESD did not see improvements in either area until late 2021, when claim volumes dropped to near pre-pandemic levels. Payment times worsened until May 2021 and did not show sustained improvement until October 2021. Call center performance showed no improvement until the same month.

Other findings include:

  • The legislation specifically called for more clarity in letters to customers. As of July 2022, ESD had revised portions of its customer service letters, but some showed little progress in improved clarity and tone. Only one of five revised letters fully met legislative requirements.
  • ESD's website now has a virtual assistant to improve customer service, but it struggled to answer some basic questions.
  • ESD issued required update reports to the Legislature, but some information was unclear or missing. The agency did establish an online data dashboard, but it included fewer than half of measures specified in statute.
  • ESD developed a training program and assembled a group of reserve claim adjudicators to prepare for a future spike in claims. However, the agency has not taken steps to ensure trainees find it helpful or that it will be able to deploy the reserve force if needed.

The report makes several recommendations to complete implementation of the reforms and improve the customer service experience. Summary material can be found here. The full report, including ESD's response to the findings, can be found here.

Media inquiries: Kathleen Cooper, Director of Communications – Kathleen.Cooper@sao.wa.gov | 564-999-0800