A bill to reform the Employment Security Department and correct several of the issues that prevented Washingtonians from receiving unemployment benefits in a timely manner received bipartisan support Thursday.

Senate Bill 5193, sponsored by Sen. Steve Conway (D-Tacoma), addresses many of the problems exposed in the wake of the layoffs caused by the pandemic and resulting “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” orders.

The bill, which passed on a 48-0 vote, will implement additional oversight and performance measures at ESD to ensure Washingtonians who have lost their job will find a more responsive agency, receive benefits quickly and securely and when disputes do arise, they are handled in a timely manner.

“Lives continue to be turned upside down by Covid-19, but last March when unemployment spiked around the country and here at home, too many Washingtonians struggled to receive the benefits they desperately needed because of confusing notices from ESD and a lack of trained staff to answer their questions,” Sen. Conway said. “This bill corrects those mistakes and takes a big step forward toward reforming the system. This will leave ESD better prepared to meet the needs of Washingtonians going forward, and better prepared to face the next crisis.”

The bill itself will increase the number of adjudicators available to work at ESD so they can better handle and resolve benefit claims. It also mandates that ESD provides notices in plain, easy-to-understand language with clear expectations.

The bill also requires ESD to work with the Unemployment Insurance Advisory Committee, comprised of worker and business advocates, to implement a number of system enhancements including:

  • Thresholds for retraining and deployment of work source staff;
  • Adjusting phone agent staffing;
  • Dedicating a toll-free number for certain claimants;
  • Piloting a caseworker approach to claims; and
  • Increasing language access for people with limited English.

There will also be an added focus on transparency and performance metrics, which will require during high unemployment periods that ESD to maintain on online data dashboard and to publish quarterly reports with specific metrics.

“Losing a job is stressful, traumatic experience,” Conway said. “We need to ensure that people experiencing the loss of a job have access to the resources and benefits they are due. This bill is an important step that will better prepare ESD to meet those needs.”

SB 5193 now heads to the House for further consideration.