Washington ESD unemployment claimants’ civil rights investigation

During the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of workers lost their jobs and had to seek financial help from state-run unemployment insurance. In Washington, the state Employment Security Department reports it paid a staggering $20.9 billion in benefits to claimants between March 8, 2020 and August 21, 2021. This includes claimants covered by an alphabet soup of programs including traditional unemployment insurance (UI); Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA); Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC); Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC); Lost Wages Assistance (LWA); and extended benefits. At the same time, ESD’s deficient policies and procedures, coupled with its inadequate software system for managing claims, have deprived needy people of due process of law and have violated certain claimants’ civil rights.

For claimants, ESD’s claims handling process can be frustrating in many ways. The agency’s software system for unemployment benefits, “UTAB,” transmits poorly worded form letters that can baffle a claimant (for example, “Re-Evaluate Claim” letters that state some decision was made about the claim, but do not say what the decision was based on). The Department routinely issues overpayment notices that are legally void (because they are untimely), demanding claimants to repay weeks or months of benefits. And if a claimant appeals an ESD decision, he or she may wait months before a hearing, at times receiving repeated billings for overpayment amounts claimed by the Department in the meantime. And even if a claimant wins an appeal, the lengthy delay may result in significant hardship that cannot be entirely cured by awarding his or her overdue benefits.

What’s more, ESD routinely provides eligible claimants with pre-hearing notices that fall below its own standards for “adequate notice.”  Problems with its notice forms are notorious. Seattle Times, Washington State Literally Failed Workers, Feb. 26, 2021 (“The [claim] filing process still can be complicated, slow and easily stalled, many claimants say. Those with questions often struggle to contact the agency. Its website and computer-generated notifications can be notoriously confusing and even inaccurate.”). The agency’s pervasive problems with defective claimant notices spurred the state Legislature to pass reforms ordering ESD to use “plain and understandable language.” ESSB 5193 (Ch. 271, §3, Laws 2021) (requiring that ESD use plain and understandable language in notices and specify the legal and factual basis for determinations).

Our firm represents unemployment claimants seeking benefits from the Employment Security Department. We have litigated dozens of benefits claims before the Washington Office of Administrative Hearings since the Covid-19 pandemic began. We have seen disturbing patterns of vague and ambiguous determinations by ESD, facially void untimely overpayment assessments, and bureaucratic incompetence. We are actively investigating potential violations of claimants’ civil rights by the Employment Security Department including in situations listed above. If you are challenging an adverse unemployment decision, or believe your civil rights may have been violated, we want to hear from you. Contact us to discuss your situation; only after we accept you as a client and review the particulars of your matter can we advise you about your rights and options.