Suzi LeVine ESD June 25, 2020 News Conference Transcript

Video here. Comments: No mention if Deloitte was called to check for data breach. No explanation of how ESD applicants are to differentiate an ESD caller from a scam caller (who could be using the same stolen personal information). No specific information on the “new technologies”. No mention of software problems. No mention of who the out-of-state vendor is for answering calls (although she finally admitted there were out-of-state people answering phones during the question and answer period). Transparency is not full.

You know, a quarter of the year has now been spent in the pandemic. And life has profoundly changed for all of us. The unemployment space is more than 1.1 million Washingtonians or nearly one third of our state’s workforce have applied for unemployment. And more than 2 million initial claims have been filed between regular unemployment and the expanded benefits under the initial claims this week.

We’ve held fairly steady the last three weeks at about 29,000 new unemployment claims. And while there’s a significant drop from our peak, we have leveled off what are still record high numbers, exceeding what we saw in the peak of the recession. The continued high levels of new applications is consistent with other States as the United States has now experienced in total the 14th week in a row of more than a million initial unemployment claims. Within Washington state, nearly 900,000 people have received payments.

But for those who have not, the waiting day by day has been exceptionally challenging. And we know that. It’s those individuals that this agency is staying laser focused on. As we work through the backlog of claims with issues, knowing every claim you resolve brings relief for those individuals and their families.

This week, I’ll start by providing an update on operation 100% and how we’ll be resolving the claims for those who’ve been waiting the longest. What’s the plan.

I’ll also share the incredible progress we’ve made on addressing imposter fraud and touch on new resources and information available about returning to work with the economy reopening.

So I’ll start. Operation 100%. As I mentioned last week, we’ve broadened the scope of operation 100% shifting from the smaller subset of those in adjudication up to May 1st to include all those who have not been paid since the crisis began and who ESD is working with to resolve issues on their claims. Last week, I shared that the baseline is set at June 15th when there was a total of 81,508 individuals waiting for their resolution, which is about 6% of total applicants since the crisis began. We’ve already reduced that queue by about 10,000 people since last week. And the number now stands at 71,679. We’re going to publish this new data to the website today and how it breaks down week after week.

And speaking of weeks, the longest waiting 10,000 applicants among those will be resolved — it is our goal —  by July 6th. The longest waiting 33,000 applicants by July 15th. And our target is to resolve the remaining claims of that 81,000 that we set from that June 15th date, that’s now 71,000 to have those resolved no later than July 31st.

I want to talk about this week and that week and this number and that number. And instead start thinking about it in terms of how many weeks are people waiting on average. The current average time to process claims with issues is just under six and a half weeks. And you can actually see what I call the bump in the pipeline in this slide at that six week mark. By the end of July, we aim to get our processing times to an average of four weeks for claims that have issues on them. For context, the standard times when we aren’t in a crisis or a peak period is three weeks. It’s worth noting right now that does not include those that are processed and paid within a week. This is just those that have an issue that gets set on them. When you do look at those paid within a week, 60% of those initial — of all initial claims are processed and paid within a week. So a majority of people are processed and paid within a week. In February — I think it’s useful to also note that that number was actually at 56%. So just keep that in mind. But when we talk about an average of four weeks to process, it’s only those claims where there are complex issues that have to be resolved by ESD staff, because each of these cases is unique based on your work history, how you answer your questions, how your employer reported your information. It can take some time to resolve.

To meet these goals, we’re doing a few key things. Starting yesterday, doing a heavy focus in our call centers on outgoing calls. And that will persist until July 6th, where we’re limiting inbound calls. This allows our staff to resolve issues for the oldest claims first. You likely remember that we did this back in May and we had great results despite the fact that it was right when the fraud attack happened. Staff at that time resolved 90% more issues on claims than when the phones were open fully for all inbound calling.

We’re going to also, and we actually already put a lot of this in motion, increase efficiencies through new training and technology to maximize our efforts and resolve more issues more quickly.

We also are continuing to split up tasks so that we can activate more staff to do within the agency to be a part of the effort to resolve the claims, those things that can be simplified down and help people train up more quickly. The ID verification was a great example of that. As we were able to train up within just a couple of days and activate hundreds of individuals across the agency to help in that effort and resolve those that were paused payments for the ID verification exercise efforts.

So those are some of the areas that we’re working on around operation 100% to get all those who are waiting the benefits for which they are eligible. And as a reminder, people will be paid retroactive to their date of eligibility. The funds will not run out and people will not miss out.

Now I want to give an update on the fraud efforts that we have. Another thing that’s going to help us to go further and faster on these unresolved claims is that after six weeks of working to tackle the biggest attack of fraud our state has ever experienced, we see very clear evidence that the tactics we put in place are working to do the key three things that we identified.

One, stop the fraud.

Two, help the victims.

And three, recover the money. In terms of stopping the fraud, it doesn’t mean that we are complacent or that the fraud frankly will ever stop. But it does mean that many of the staff that had to swarm on this effort can refocus their energies back to resolving claims for customers that have been waiting the longest.

In terms of helping the victims with the tireless work of our staff and the recent help from the national guard troops, we not only resolved the 42,000 who had been paused that first weekend. That was actually just as of a couple of weeks ago that we had left, but we resolved those, uh, those who had been waiting to be paid from starting from mid-May by our target of last week, but thousands more besides, and we will have all those whose claims were impacted on May 15th with identity verification issues resolved on time by June 30th, along with many others from both before and after that time frame.

Within just the past two weeks in total, we were able to clear a hundred thousand total identity issues and hats off to the guard troops who were able to resolve 8,408 ID verifications in just two days.

Now, as I’ve said before, this effort will never be done. It will always be a race to stay ahead of the criminals, but I’m encouraged by the results of our efforts to stamp out the majority of the fraud. And by the fact that in terms of that third category of recovering the money, we’ve already recovered over $350 million. That we’re continuing to work with financial institutions all across the country and with federal law enforcement in our efforts to stop the criminals and recover the money.

Lastly, I’m going to touch briefly on our return to work efforts and our efforts to help with those who need to refuse work. In terms of this area, this is going to increasingly be a part of the conversation as counties move into phases two and three, under the Governor’s Safe Start Washington plan. While we remained focused on resolving the claims for those who have been waiting the longest, there are people already going back to work or who cannot get yet back to work for COVID-19 related reasons. As the economy reopens, they will either be transitioned off of unemployment as they go back to old jobs, looking for new work or exploring their options to go onto pandemic unemployment assistance or PUA, if they cannot return to work. This week. We launched two new web pages with information for both employers and workers about returning to work and refusing work.

It’s clear that returning to work is going to be complex for many as the pandemic continues. There will be times people must refuse offers of work because they are high risk and no telework options are available, or maybe they have small children at home and the daycare or school is closed due to 19 COVID-19. While our goal is to always get people back to work, it is all about getting back to work safely. And we’re committed to helping Washingtonians do just that. We’ll frequently update those pages and have been sending direct information to claimants and employers to provide the most up to date guidance.

There’s been a lot of progress this week in many areas, but our agency’s number one focus continues to be on getting money into the hands of eligible Washingtonians as quickly as we can. Like I said before, those waiting on us to resolve their claims is 6% of the total pool of applications in this crisis. They’re critical. And we’re putting the lion’s share of our agencies resources towards getting their claims resolved. Despite the historic levels of unemployment, we have not, and we will not lose sight of these individuals knowing that every day that they don’t have resolution on their claim matters deeply. Many of them will get that resolution in the coming days and weeks. And we won’t stop. We will work around the clock until that is true for all of them. With that. I’m happy to take your questions.


Suzi LeVine ESD June 18, 2020 News Conference Transcript

Below is the transcript of Suzi LeVine’s prepared statements that began her ESD news conference on 2020-06-18, 1:00pm Pacific. LeVine is Commissioner of the Washington State Employment Security Department (ESD).

Editorial Comments:

Unlike the previous two news conferences, LeVine did not put fraud at the front of the talk. No doubt most people watching or listening are more interested in knowing when they will get money from ESD.

ID verification has become so super important that LeVine now says at least 650 people (400 employees + 200 employee investigators + 50 guards people + leadership staff) are now working on ID verification. This suggests the established system in use before the pandemic was very weak in verifying identity.

LeVine has previously said there would be transparency. But, here are some items she didn’t mention:
— Is ESD using contract call-takers through a vendor?
— Are some of these call takers outside of Washington state?
— What is the roll of these call takers?
— According to one elected official, “ESD has brought in Deloitte to see if there’s a data breach.” No mention of that.
— LeVine still has not explained how ESD will identify the oldest applications. Database query reports? Manual scrolling through a million applications looking for dates?

Transcript of Suze LeVine prepared statement, 2020-05-18, 1:00PM Pacific

Good afternoon, everybody. Can you hear me Okay? Nick and team? Great. So before jumping into the updates for you, I want to pause and acknowledge that it was three months ago this week that we experienced a 10 X increase in demand for unemployment benefits in both our call and our claims volumes. As you well know, Washington has been at the forefront of many aspects of the COVID-19 crisis in this country. And the impacts to the unemployment system is no exception. We’re incredibly proud to have delivered more than 5.4 billion dollars in benefits to 856,000 people in these three months. That we are deeply aware there are many Washingtonians who are still awaiting relief. As it has been from the outset, our priorities throughout this crisis have been to get benefits as quickly as possible to those who are eligible and to increase the number of people who are eligible for benefits, even as we’ve needed to put a tremendous amount of time, energy and resources into stopping the fraud, helping the victims of that fraud and recovering the money from that fraud.

Our core mission has remained the same, get eligible, Washingtonians the benefits they need as quickly as we can. And we will continue to work truly around the clock to achieve this mission even as we keep the criminals out. We’ve made incredible progress in resolving issues, set unclaimed flag for identity verification as part of our efforts to combat fraud. And I’ll speak about that in a moment. And, we maintain a laser focus on getting folks who’ve been waiting the longest, the benefits they need. With that in mind, I was truly humbled this morning to greet about 50 national guard members as they started training to help with ID verification with more joining over the next two weeks, I shared with them the gravity of the work they’re doing, that they will be evaluating identifications to help legitimate claimants get the benefits they so desperately need. And, to stop the criminals from getting Washington taxpayer dollars. Keeping them focused on this work, allows them to be trained quickly and get to work practically right away.

We’re excited to have them as an extension of our team while they’re serving their mission with ESD. And we’re so grateful for their service to our state. They’ll join the more than 400 ESD staff, myself and my leadership team included, who shifted to work on ID verification and the 200 investigators also focused on this effort. Now, for a moment, I’m going to talk about Operation 100% and then I’m going to talk again about fraud. With Operation 100%, which we had rolled out the beginning of May, we had set the goal of resolving all unpaid claims by June 15th, for those who had applied between March 8th and May 1st. We attacked that goal, but unfortunately we didn’t make it. There was a variety of reasons. Most notably, as you know, the massive fraud attack perpetrated on our system by criminals. Now, while we face challenges in meeting this target, that, that doesn’t mean the needs of our customers are any less dire.

And we take this very seriously. We know they are increasingly desperate and we’re not going arrest until we get this solved for them. Now that we’re past that June 15th, mark, we’re resetting our targets. We’ll no longer be tracking just those in adjudication and who have applied by May 1st, but all those who have applied until today and haven’t received any payments. We’ll continue to work the oldest first. But this new target allows us to set expectations for everyone who hasn’t received payment rather than a smaller subset. And again, it’s also focusing on those who have had issues set on their claims. This doesn’t include those who have actions themselves, that they need to take. The current number of those who haven’t been paid and need ESD to act is 81,508 people. And we expect to have a new target date for that population by next week.

Again, this is more than those in adjudication and not the same pool of people we were tracking before. It includes anyone who hasn’t been paid, because issues set on their claim for a variety of reasons. To support this. we’ll also be doing another round of changes to our phone service, to focus on outbound calling, to get through these claims faster. As a reminder, the last time we limited inbound calling for a week and focused on outbound calling our staff were able to be 90% more productive in clearing issues and getting claims paid. And we expect similar, if not better results this time, we’re also doing a lot within our customer service team to improve their efficiencies and to increase the number of claims that each of those individuals in our incredible customer service staff can resolve. We’ll also be updating the Operation 100% page with the new target and information this week That’s operation 100%.

Let’s talk about fraud for a moment. Since the massive frat [sic] fraud attack started, we’ve been focused on three things, stopping the fraud, helping the victims and recovering the money. So let me start with stopping the fraud. Our modeling continues to indicate that our efforts at thwarting fraudulent claims from going out are successful. That said, and as I mentioned last week, we know that this is a never ending race and we must keep trying to run more quickly than the criminals, Now helping the victims. As I mentioned earlier, we moved over 400 ESD staff members, including me and most of my leadership team on to ID verification work. As I mentioned a moment ago, we also have national guard troops coming in to help this week. And over the next two weeks. With this boost, we expect to make significant progress. And in fact, we already have made significant progress specifically last week.

I said we had, at that time, 42,000 people who had been receiving benefits, but were paused around May 15th. I’m proud to say that we are on track to meet our target of resolving all of those claims by tomorrow. So payments can restart for those legitimate claimants among them. With the added staff capacity and help from the national guard. We expect additional resolutions to continue at pace for those whose payments were paused after the weekend of May 15th, as well as those who had not been receiving payments prior to that time where identity was another element of their claim. So, that’s stopping the fraud and helping the victim. Now let me talk about recovering the money. Our efforts to recover every dollar we can continues. And we’ve now received back 350 million. That’s up 13 million from last week alone. We are actively reaching out to the banks where we know thus far there have been fraudulent funds sent and we continue working with federal law enforcement and the banking industry in our efforts.

So again, stop the fraud, help the victims, recover the money. Now, I’m going to focus on something that may feel a little left field, but it’s still really critical as we think about how are we helping our communities in Washington state. I want to talk for a moment about paid family and medical leave. It feels like a lifetime, but it was only five and a half months ago that the paid family and medical leave program launched. And if you’ll remember, it was only 30 months from bill to benefits going live. At ESD, getting benefits out to those who are eligible includes, making sure we get benefits out quickly to those eligible for paid family and medical leave too. Despite the COVID-19 headwinds, including moving near, moving nearly all our staff to telework, only two months after launch, we have kept paid family and medical leave on track, reducing our customer response time from a peak of 11 weeks down to three weeks right now all while delivering $197 million, almost $200 million out to 54,000 people. Of note is that we’re on track for our goal of two weeks by the last week of June or the first week of July, which was the goal that we had said before the pandemic struck.

So as I’ve said before, there is no playbook for a pandemic, especially one for which the impact has been so enormous and so swift, but our agency will leave no stone unturned or resource untapped to get eligible, Washingtonians their benefits. We are so grateful for the support of elected leaders, the national guard and Washingtonians who have reached out with feedback for us. We will continue to listen, find creative solutions. And the only way we’re going to get through this is together. With that. I’m happy to take your questions.


Washington ESD Struggles with Data

During the news conference 2020-06-11 with Suzi LeVine, Commissioner of the Washington State Employment Security Department, Linzi Sheldon of KIRO TV asked a couple questions. LeVine’s answers reveal more than what she actually said.

Sheldon asked why many ESD applicants were being asked to upload the same documents, especially identification documents, more than once. Here’s LeVine’s answer. Comments immediately after.

“We are working on a problem right now with our vendor with the system regarding how we clear, and then, sustain, that clearing process. Our system was not designed for doing bulk clearing and bulk issue setting. and so, we are working through that, so that those individuals who have been cleared do not need to resubmit information and we are working towards resolving this quickly with our vendor to make sure that problem does not persist. We are aware of it and we are working on it.” . . . “however, there are some people where some of their information has changed and where we do actually need that information again.”

The vendor is Fast Enterprises from Colorado. Fast Enterprises sold ESD a complex software platform to manage unemployment applications and claims. The software is called FASTUI, which was implemented at the beginning of 2017.

“We are working on a problem right now with our vendor with the system regarding how we clear, and then, sustain, that clearing process.”

The first notable part of that statement is working with the vendor. This is an admission that ESD does not have total control over the software and the effects of configuration changes.

Once an applicant is cleared for payment, the system sometimes unclears the applicant — probably as a result of other configuration changes. This means ESD must attend to an application at least twice, thereby reducing efficiency.

“Our system was not designed for doing bulk clearing and bulk issue setting. And so we are working through that, so that those individuals who have been cleared do not need to resubmit information and we are working towards resolving this quickly with our vendor to make sure that problem does not persist.”

This is an admission the software has limitations. It is an admission ESD needs help from the software producer. Most likely the software was designed for single-applicant attention. Attempts to clear hundreds or thousands of applicants for payments is apparently not working, because other software actions are altering desired settings.

“however, there are some people where some of their information has changed and where we do actually need that information again.”

LeVine’s words are a polite way of saying this: The system is deleting and losing documents applicants have uploaded. To an ESD worker, an upload may have disappeared without even the worker being aware of the upload. So, once an ESD worker gets into an application, it may be possible the worker simply sees the need for ID documents and issues an alert for the applicant to upload — again.

Sheldon also asked if ESD would prioritize applicants, so those waiting the longest would get attention first. “Can you tell us what the ESD is doing to clear up those people who have been waiting the longest?”

Here’s most of LeVine’s answer:

“So we are working very hard to clear those people who are there longest. As someone who has dug in deeply on some of those numbers, it’s a combination in terms of how people are still waiting that amount of time. In some cases it’s that those individuals have not responded when we called. In some cases it’s that there are additional areas that need to be worked. But, most of those folks who have been waiting the longest have been contacted and those issues are being worked. So, the team is prioritizing those. In addition to that, what we are working to distinguish are those people who have been waiting longest, actually those people in adjudication who overall, and I’ve mentioned this in my remarks, who, some of whom are actually already receiving payments. It’s just that they are receiving conditional payments versus some people who are not receiving payments at all. So we are working to identify those who have not been receiving payments at all, and will be prioritizing them, again, from oldest to newest. So, that’s what we are working on in terms of, again, continuing to dig down into the data so that we can be more targeted to address and relieve the needs of more Washingtonians.”

LeVine did not really answer Sheldon’s question. Sheldon asked what ESD is doing to focus on those waiting the longest. LeVine described various aspects that might cause those to be waiting the longest. Only at the end did LeVine suggest some action: “continuing to dig down into the data . . . .” No group in ESD focused on those waiting the longest?

Let’s focus on this statement:

“…working to identify whose who have not been receiving payments at all.”

LeVine makes the task of identifying those waiting the longest as some sort of complex mystery hunt. A decent database programmer could write a few queries in a day (or less) to generate various reports. LeVine is turning a simple matter into some complex, convoluted, process.

Apparently, LeVine can’t simply say something like “We have developed database queries that identify those waiting the longest.” Why not? It comes down to a few factors:
— the data is locked up in a proprietary format that requires specialized, custom programming from the vendor. (Remember the vendor comments?)
— the software is not capable of the necessary queries
— ESD does not have anyone on staff capable of programming the queries — specialized or not

Really, identifying those waiting the longest should not be a big ordeal. But the fact that LeVine is still talking about “working to identify” means ESD has yet to come up with a solution to do so. The root of the problem is probably in data format, software, and knowledgeable personnel. Apparently ESD does not have the right combination of those three.

Another factor might be that with all the changes ESD is trying to do, the database has become, quite simply, a mess, such that ESD cannot depend on queries to provide good answers.